Public health officials will tell you that drinking raw milk is not worth the risk of suffering a food-borne illness. But advocates — who contend raw or unpasteurized milk can battle everything from autism to allergies — are behind bills in a number of states to open the door to raw milk sales. Further, Congress is entertaining two bills to make it easier to buy and transport raw milk across state lines.
While 30 states in the U.S. allow consumer sale of raw milk in some form, a 2012 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that unpasteurized products are 150 times more likely to cause food-borne illnesses than pasteurized versions. But advocates say the health benefits outweigh the negatives, and people should have the right to choose what they want to eat or drink.
Pasteurization is the process of heating milk to kill microorganisms. Typically milk is held at 161 degrees for 15 seconds, a process called flash pasteurization. Under a 1987 federal law, products made from unpasteurized milk may not be sold or traded across state borders.
Currently states are divided into areas where the sale of raw milk for human consumption is illegal to states that allow some form of sale, whether for pet food, retail sale, farm sales or herd shares (where consumers purchase a share of a farmer's herd in exchange for raw milk).
Rep. Thomas Massie, R- Ky., recently introduced two bills: The first would end the interstate ban on raw milk sales, and the second would allow interstate transport between states where raw milk is currently legal.
According to The Conference of State Legislatures at the state level, 40 bills to allow raw milk sales or ease current restrictions have been introduced in 23 states.
Sally Fallon Morell, the president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit education foundation and advocate of raw milk, said if consumers want to drink raw milk they will find a way, many times going to states where it is legal.
"It's grossly unfair for farmers in states where it is illegal to sell raw milk," Fallon Morell said. "It doesn't mean people will stop drinking it. It just means those farmers cannot profit from the enthusiasm for raw milk."
The foundation fights for the legal sale of unpasteurized milk and a ban on soy-based formulas for infants, based on the theories of Weston Price, a 20th-century Cleveland dentist, believing that pasteurizing milk destroys vitamins and damages health-giving enzymes in milk.
But Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney specializing in food-safety issues, said he's handled two dozen cases involving illness from raw milk, and the majority involve parents who believed in the health benefits of raw milk.
"It's a high-risk product, and in most of my cases I'm representing the most vulnerable in society, whether that's the little kids or elderly people with immune compromise situations," said Marler.
Barbara Mahon, a pediatrician who also works with the CDC, said while adults can make the choice to drink raw milk for themselves, no child should be given unpasteurized milk.
"Raw milk is the perfect environment for bacteria to grow in — from tuberculosis, to salmonella and E. coli, it's a breeding ground for illness," Mahon said. "It's just not worth it."
Much of the information on raw milk is based on anecdotal accounts of its benefits. RealMilk.com, a website by the Weston A. Price Foundation, says that in addition to helping grow children's nervous systems, raw milk produces bacteria that help break down lactose, making it easier to digest for people with lactose intolerance.
Christopher Gardner, a researcher at Stanford University, decided to find out if there really was any effect on lactose intolerance from drinking raw milk. His study was partially funded by the Weston A. Price Foundation, in hopes of getting scientific data to back up what the foundation was hearing from raw milk drinkers, according to Fallon Morell.
The study published in March in the Annals of Family Medicine, gave 16 people with lactose intolerance three different types of milk — soy, raw or pasteurized — each over eight-day periods. The amounts of milk increased by 4 ounces each day, and the participants gave detailed accounts of their symptoms, which were mostly gas, diarrhea, bloating and cramps.
"With the natural food movement, there are a lot of claims that are anecdotal and not substantiated, so I wanted to prove in a scientifically rigorous way if there is a benefit to raw milk in these people's symptoms," Gardner said. "At the end, there really wasn't a hint of a benefit with raw milk vs. pasteurized."
Fallon Morell said the results simply don't hold up.
"We have thousands of testimonies from people who can't drink pasteurized milk but have no problem with raw milk," Fallon Morell said. "With such a small sampling size over such a short period, saying it's proven that raw milk is not good for lactose intolerance, is just not accurate."