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Raw Milk Safety: It's Not Your Grandfather's Milk

Tim Boyer's picture

Raw milk safety has been the topic of recent news after five children near Fresno, California were found to have contracted a serious bacterial infection potentially linked to drinking raw milk produced and bottled by Organic Pastures Dairy. As a result, Organic Pastures Dairy has been quarantined and is not allowed to produce or sell any raw milk products for the retail market. So far, no physical evidence has appeared showing that the children were indeed infected with contaminated milk from the dairy. A parallel to this is similar to a question of the past regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—will it turn out that none will be found? I contend that as a former farm boy-turned-scientist, it doesn’t matter…because the threat is there.

I was raised on a small farm in southern Missouri throughout the 60’s and the 70’s. On the farm, we did just about everything that is stereotypical and true of farm life. We planted crops for our table in the spring, fought drought and pests in the summer, harvested and preserved in the fall and milked a cow or two daily to feed six hungry children.

Milking a cow by hand was never a clean or sanitary practice in my experience. Cows don’t mind lying in the dirt among their waste. When it rained, they came to their milking stalls muddy with brownish water dripping from their broad sides like rain from a gutter.
Cows are not always gentle beasts. Most of the ones we had over the years would kick during a milking session either from a sore teat or just out of plain orneriness. As a result, their hooves kicked up dirt, waste, hay and God knows what else in the air and into the milk pail along with the milk.

I have a clear memory of watching my mother take that sullied milk and filter it from the pail into a large jar covered with a cloth and then serve the milk to us with our breakfast. We were farmers. We did not waste milk. Sometimes the milk was allowed sit for a few hours as the cream rose and then collected for churning into butter using a square shaped jar with a wooden paddle and hand crank that built both muscle and fat at the same time.

The news of possible milk contamination in California made me reflect on the practice of drinking raw milk. Not once in all of those years of drinking unpasteurized milk did we come down with bacterial poisoning. Did pathogenic bacteria like of E. coli O157:H7 exist back then? Did others get poisoned and we just never heard about it? Were our immune systems stronger then? Or, were we just lucky? Perhaps the answer lies in the idea that the times have changed and today’s milk is not the milk of our grandfathers’.

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The pathogenic E. coli O157:H7 bacterium is believed to have originated during a Shigella pandemic in Central America back in the 70’s. The hypothesis is that a bacterial virus transferred the gene for the Shiga toxin to a strain of otherwise non-pathogenic E. coli bacteria, thereby turning it into the lethal monster it is today.

Pathogenic E. coli O157:H7 can be found in the digestive tract and waste matter of cattle as well as from several other sources. Cattle tolerate the bacterium; however, in man the bacterium produces copious amounts of potent toxins that causes severe damage to the lining of the intestine resulting in painful cramping and bloody diarrhea.

The majority of people infected by E. coli O157:H7 overcome the infection, but some, particularly children, develop hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which is characterized by renal failure and hemolytic anemia. The elderly and immuncompromised individuals are also susceptible to serious medical complications such as HUS combined with fever and neurologic symptoms. This illness can have a mortality rate as high as 50% in the elderly.

The likelihood that the cattle on our farm had E. coli O157:H7 is doubtful, but that does not mean that other strains of pathogenic bacteria did not reside in them either. In addition, animal studies have demonstrated that animals in the wild have stronger immune systems than typical inbred laboratory animals because of exposure differences to microbes in their habitats. Outside is dirty, inside is clean. As a child raised on a farm, I have no doubt that what I could fend off back then would kick my butt today. In that sense then, yes, immunity does make a difference and we were probably lucky.

Another consideration is that national and international communication during my farm days was nothing in comparison to today. A sneeze heard around the world will be part of our news for a week at least, accompanied by hundreds if not thousands of replicating articles all at the click of a mouse. Back then, if 50 or maybe even 500 children (let alone 5) came down with possible bacterial infection from contaminated milk—we would not have known about it. Today, it qualifies as a social cause.

My point is that the stand taken by a growing number of pro-raw milk consumers is ill conceived. Raw milk is not healthier than pasteurized milk. The times have changed and in a sense we are no longer drinking our grandfathers’ milk. I too, grow organic produce in my garden; I recognize that good health follows good nutrition; however, in some instances such as raw milk, the risks outweigh the benefits and it’s time to get with the times. Science that our grandfathers did not have available in their day makes a strong case against raw milk consumption today. Should we bring back the day of the iron horse…and the iron lung as well?!

The quarantine of Organic Pastures Dairy may be premature, but in light of what happened with the cantaloupe scare recently in the U.S. it’s understandable and, once again, a sign of the times. Give me my milk and give it to me safe is what the public wants. And I’ll drink a glass of pasteurized, low-fat bovine milk to that.