We’ve seen a steady stream of articles about raw milk in the major media over the last few months. And many of them include some variation of this statement from the CDC about raw milk’s dangers, such as was contained in an article in The Economist:

“Public health advocates dispute the health benefits, though, and say that raw milk is inherently risky, especially for children, old people, and anybody with health problems. Between 1998 and 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control, some 1,600 people became sick after drinking the stuff. Nearly 200 were hospitalised and two died…”

Each time I see those numbers re-stated, I find myself shaking my head. They can’t be right, I sense. I decided a few days ago to try to get into them and, lo and behold, they are high, at least if you compare them to numbers CDC has previously issued about raw milk illnesses. Plus, they are misstated in a very important way when it comes to so-called deaths from raw milk. It’s a little complicated, so bear with me.  

1. Total number of illnesses 1998-2008. If you take the certified CDC numbers provided to the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund’s Freedom-of-Information Act request in 2007 (covering 33 years 1973-2005) and isolate the period 1998-2005–you get 1,046 illnesses.

Then, you go to the official national CDC outbreak tables (Foodborne Outbreak Online Database) for the period 2006 and 2007. Those tables are supposed to be the most up to date, but they don’t go beyond 2007, so it’s not clear where the CDC is getting its 2008 numbers from. Those two years (2006 and 2007) showed 172 additional illnesses attributed to raw dairy, for a total of 1,218.

So for 200,8 I went to a set of tables maintained by Cornell University, which draw on newspaper articles, and is pretty close to CDC for other years, and it showed 36 illnesses for 2008.

So, using the CDC’s own data for 1998-2007 (and Cornell for 2008), I came up with a total of 1,254 illnesses. This is nearly 30% fewer than the 1,600-plus reported in the Economist and other papers.

2. Hospitalizations. Going through the CDC foodborne illness tables, I come up with about 25 hospitalizations, not the 200-plus CDC claims in the media. That includes one case of 12 hospitalizations from queso fresca cheese in 2003 in Texas–cheese almost certainly made from milk not intended to be served raw.

3. Deaths. Here is where I believe CDC is being most seriously misleading. It says there have been two deaths from raw milk, as if to suggest two people gulped down raw milk and dropped dead. The two deaths, it turns out, (according to the CDC’s table I linked to above) both occurred during 2003. One was in California, and one in Texas (the same case as the 12 hospitalizations I mentioned previously). Both were from queso fresca cheese and, as I said before, almost certainly came from conventional milk intended for pasteurization. I say that because queso fresca is most typically made in the Hispanic communities, and generally from milk bought informally from farms that normally send their milk for pasteurization.

The reality is that there have been zero deaths from milk intended to be sold unpasteurized for the 1998-2008 period (versus 3 deaths from pasteurized milk in Massachusetts in 2007, according to the CDC table). And from all I can tell, zero deaths from raw milk going back to at least the mid-1980s–a period of at least 25 years.?

Maybe the people at realrawmilkfacts.com can help unravel the discrepancies, since the site has all kinds of studies and statements from the CDC and FDA saying raw milk causes huge numbers of illness. Or possibly Milky Way can help, since MW posted some data on illnesses for 2010 following my previous post.

But as several people noted following my previous post, and have pointed out repeatedly, the government has a double standard for raw milk versus other foods. The current debacle over contaminated eggs is just another example–a recall of eggs from a large producer rather than a shutdown of the offender. The big problems in our food system have nothing to do with small producers of raw milk, but much more to do with the factory producers. But the authorities seem unwilling to stop at anything to disparage raw milk, including providing misleading data.