A customer buys a container of raw milk from a European dairy vending machine. When the U.S. Centers for Disease Control or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration come out with a study having to do with raw milk, you know before even viewing the results that it’s going to fan the fear flames. You also know what the bottom-line conclusion will be: ban raw milk. 


So it’s interesting to see how the the European Union’s Food Safety Authority—Europe’s equivalent to the CDC and FDA—treats one of its own studies on raw milk. 


In a new study, it’s not as if the European agency says that raw milk is wonderful or a panacea. It doesn’t. In fact, the agency is kind of negative about raw milk. But rather than a ban, one of its proposed solutions is encouragement to farmers to do better on safety.


What’s especially refreshing to this American is the difference in tone compared to studies that have come out of the CDC and FDA on raw milk. The European FSA’s main conclusion is that “raw milk can be a source of harmful bacteria.” Okay, I’d say lots of people can go along with that. Substitute the name of a different food—ground beef, chicken, cantaloupe, peanut butter—and the same conclusion would be accurate. 


What prompted the FSA to come to that conclusion was its study showing 27 outbreaks attributed to raw milk in the seven years between 2007 and 2013. Now, 27 outbreaks in seven years works out to four per year. The report doesn’t indicate how many people were sickened. Since an outbreak could be as few as two illnesses, the number sickened could be as few as eight per year….or it could be more. 


Rather than go through all kinds of extrapolations and data gymnastics, like our CDC or FDA has done to come up with headline-grabbing conclusions that raw milk is much more dangerous than pasteurized milk, the European FSA just stops with the totals, and says as much. “The Panel could not quantify the public health risks associated with drinking raw milk in the EU due to data gaps.” Can you imagine the CDC admitting to “data gaps”? No, the CDC’s motto is much different: If you don’t have the data to slam raw milk, you make it up. A prime example is its famous Minnesota study concluding that more than 20,000 people became ill from raw milk in the first decade of this century. 


One intriguing bit of data that the FSA doesn’t comment on: Only two of the 27 outbreaks it found were the result of E.coli O157:H7; most of the remainder, it says, were from the much less dangerous campylobacter pathogen. In a continent more than 50% more populous than the U.S. (with more than 500 million people), the risk of E.coli O157:H7 from raw milk seems infinitesimal. 


As a point of comparison with the U.S., the CDC in another famous study, in which it concluded that raw milk is 150 times more dangerous than pasteurized milk, said that raw milk was behind 121 outbreaks over 14 years, or about eight per year. That is twice what the European FSA found.


Another intriguing point of comparison: the most recent CDC study on raw milk (discussed in a couple of recent blog posts here) found 13 outbreaks attributed to E.coli O157:H7 in the six-year period 2007-2012. That is about two per year, versus a total of two for six years in Europe (or about one every three years). So it seems as if E.coli O157:H7 is a significantly higher risk factor for illness in American raw milk than in Europe. I would guess that E.coli O157:H7 is more of a risk factor in the U.S. for most foods, likely given the dominance of factory foods. 


Back to the FSA study, it has three recommendations about what to do about the outbreaks in Europe: 


1. Dairy farmers should implement “good hygiene practice…” 

2. There should be “improved communication to consumers on the hazards and control measures associated with consumption of raw drinking milk.” I take this to be better warning labels. 

3. Finally, consumers especially worried about the risk of raw milk should simply boil it. 


Amazing, the FSA believes that farmers and consumers can be responsible enough on their own to simply do better with raw milk safety. What a concept.