Consumer Freedom and the Risks of Raw Milk

by Greg Conko on March 16, 2012 · 3 comments

in Agriculture, Culture, Features, Health and Illness, Nanny State, Personal Liberty, Precaution & Risk, Zeitgeist

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Earlier today, Nicole Ciandella linked to an essay by the John Locke Foundation’s Fergus Hodgson, titled “The Absurdity of Raw Milk Prohibition.” It’s a good piece, worth reading. But Hodgson makes a couple of errors worth pointing out, so I thought I’d add my two cents.

Hodgson begins well enough:

“Picture a peaceful, Amish farmer, selling one of nature’s super foods — fresh, raw milk. Eager customers came from afar, even across state lines, to savor the taste and access a nutritious product. Who could oppose such harmonious commerce on Rainbow Acres Farm? Government officials and their enforcers, that’s who.

This Pennsylvania farmer has been the subject of a yearlong sting operation, which included stealth purchases and a 5 a.m. surprise inspection. In February, a federal judge imposed a permanent injunction that prohibited him from selling his milk across state lines.”

So far, so good. But then Hodgson makes an error of over-simplification: “To defend this violation of freedom of choice, proponents claim to be protecting others from the purported dangers of raw milk. But this claim is laughable, since evidence to the contrary has been mounting for decades.”

As I’ve written on occasion, the health risks associated with raw milk consumption are generally quite low, at least for adults with a healthy immune system. But they’re not zero. After all, pasteurization was seen as a remarkable scientific breakthrough and public health miracle for a reason: raw milk can harbor any number of nasty bacteria – including S. typhimurium, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, E. coli O157:H7, Listeria, Campylobacter, and Brucella – which historically have had a nasty tendency to result in illness and, occasionally, death.

Admittedly, compared with lots of other, far larger risks that we humans live with on a daily basis, you’d certainly think that public health officials would have more pressing issues to deal with. But here’s where Hodgson lets his enthusiasm get the better of him. He writes: “[A] recent federal report (PDF) from the Centers for Disease Control did not find a single death from the product in a 14-year research period, while three individuals died on account of pasteurized milk. … That’s because raw milk is a safe product.”

The problem is, the CDC report Hodgson links to flatly contradicts his claims. “We found 121 outbreaks for which the product’s pasteurization status was known; among these, 73 (60%) involved nonpasteurized products and resulted in 1,571 cases, 202 hospitalizations, and 2 deaths.” Now, it’s important to note that all of the deaths attributed to foodborne disease outbreaks associated with dairy products involved cheeses, not fluid milk. But, according to the report, two of the deaths were caused by unpasteurized products and only one by a pasteurized product. (My best guess is that Hodgson mis-read the table at the bottom of page 387 to arrive at his conclusion that 3 deaths were caused by pasteurized products.)

Hodgson’s bigger point, that the risks associated with unpasteurized milk are tiny and we shouldn’t stand idly by while the government tramples our rights in order to protect us from ourselves, is of course true — which is why I still recommend the article. But I have very little sympathy for people who wish to perpetuate the myth that raw milk is perfectly safe and/or somehow better for us than pasteurized milk.

Now, lest I be misunderstood, let me be clear:  I do believe that consenting adults should be free to sell, buy, and/or consume raw milk. But the outrage here is not that our government is cracking down on a perfectly benign activity; it’s that our fellow citizens have empowered government to interfere with our ability to make our own choices when they raise any risk at all. The crackdown on raw milk is merely one symptom of a much larger problem.

Gordon S Watson March 16, 2012 at 1:19 pm

the CDC report is a calculated perversion of the data in hand. The authors cherry-picked the years so as to mis-represent the situation. Worst of all, they perverted the lingo. ‘Outbreak’ is 2 or more individuals suffering an illness. So total # of outbreaks over years, is scary. Yet when the system delivering “homo milk” fails, you get thousands of people sickened in one ‘outbreak’.
Go read the study, then tell us how come they cut it off in 2007…. the year before 3 people died in Massachusetts and 1000s made ill, from pasteur-ized milk?
How come 190,000 made ill in Cal. in 2006 was not even mentioned?
A kid who tried to pull off such a fraud in a junior high school project, would be failed … and you call this “science” ?!

Millions of people have found out for themselves that whole fresh raw milk, is quite different from the ersatz dreck, merchandised on the shelf. Which is why the demand for REAL MILK is un-stoppable
the scare-mongering against raw milk has nothing to do with real risk of harm = it’s people who are stuck in a half-century old mentality, freaking out as informed consumers reject their project

Fergus Hodgson March 16, 2012 at 4:56 pm

G’day Greg, I appreciate the critique.

The CDC report had zero deaths from raw milk over the entire 14 year period. That affirms my point; it does not contradict it.

The two deaths you note were from raw cheese, not raw milk.

Regarding the three deaths from pasteurized milk. You are correct, the full report notes only one, and I was confused by the press release which noted three deaths. I had not realized that two of the three may have been from raw cheese. I noticed that after my article went out, and I will see what I can do to have it corrected.

If you want a more detailed assessment of the CDC results, I encourage you to read this piece from the Weston A. Price Foundation:

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