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Raw (Unpasteurized) Milk

Trying to decide about raw milk?

Photo: Pouring a glass of milk.Developing a healthy lifestyle is a process with many decisions and steps. One step you might be thinking about is adding raw milk to your diet. Raw milk is milk that has not been pasteurized to kill harmful germs. Germs include bacteria, viruses, and parasites. It's important to understand the risks of drinking raw milk, especially because you may be hearing claims about the supposed "benefits" of raw milk.

Raw milk contains bacteria, and some of them can be harmful. So, if you're thinking about consuming raw milk because you believe that it is a good source of beneficial bacteria, you need to know that it isn't and you may instead get sick from the harmful bacteria. If you think that certain types of bacteria may be beneficial to your health, consider getting them from foods that don't involve such a high risk. For example, so-called probiotic bacteria are sometimes added to pasteurized fermented foods, such as yogurt and kefir.

Milk and products made from milk need minimal processing, called pasteurization, which can be done by heating the milk briefly (for example, heating it to 161°F for about 20 seconds). When milk is pasteurized, some bacteria remain in it, but the disease-causing ones are killed. Harmful germs usually don't change the look, taste, or smell of milk, so only when milk has been pasteurized can you be confident that these germs are not present. To ensure that milk is safe, processors rapidly cool it after pasteurization, practice sanitary handling, and store milk in clean, closed containers at 45°F or below.

Remember, you can't look at, smell, or taste a bottle of raw milk and tell if it's safe to drink. Make the best decision for the health of your family. If you want to keep milk in your family's diet, protect them by not giving them raw milk. Even healthy adults can get sick from drinking raw milk. If you're thinking about drinking raw milk because you believe it has health benefits, consider other options.

Who is at greatest risk of getting sick from drinking raw milk?

Photo: Father and son with a glass of milk.The risk of getting sick from drinking raw milk is greater for infants and young children, the elderly, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems, such as people with cancer, an organ transplant, or HIV/AIDS, than it is for healthy school-aged children and adults. But, it is important to remember that healthy people of any age can get very sick or even die if they drink raw milk contaminated with harmful germs.

What are the risks associated with drinking raw milk?

Raw milk can carry harmful bacteria and other germs that can make you very sick or kill you. While it is possible to get foodborne illnesses from many different foods, raw milk is one of the riskiest of all.

Getting sick from raw milk can mean many days of diarrhea, stomach cramping, and vomiting. Less commonly, it can mean kidney failure, paralysis, chronic disorders, and even death.

Many people who chose raw milk thinking they would improve their health instead found themselves (or their loved ones) sick in a hospital for several weeks fighting for their lives from infections caused by germs in raw milk. For example, a person can develop severe or even life-threatening diseases, such as Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can cause paralysis, and hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can result in kidney failure and stroke.

Aren't raw or natural foods better than processed foods?

Many people believe that foods with no or minimal processing are better for their health. Many people also believe that small, local farms are better sources of healthy food. However, some types of processing are needed to protect health. For example, consumers process raw meat, poultry, and fish for safety by cooking. Similarly, when milk is pasteurized, it is heated just long enough to kill disease-causing germs. Most nutrients remain after milk is pasteurized. There are many local, small farms that offer pasteurized organic milk and cheese products.

I've heard that many organic and raw milk producers are creating sanitary and humane conditions for raising animals and producing "safe" raw milk and raw milk products (like cheeses and yogurts). Does this help reduce milk contamination?

Adherence to good hygienic practices during milking can reduce, but not eliminate, the risk of milk contamination. The dairy farm environment is a reservoir for illness-causing germs. No matter what precautions farmers take, and even if their raw milk tests come back negative, they cannot guarantee that their milk, or the products made from their milk, are free of harmful germs.

  • Germs such as Escherichia coli, Campylobacter, and Salmonella can contaminate milk during the process of milking dairy animals, including cows, sheep, and goats. Animals that carry these germs usually appear healthy.

Photo: Bottles of milk.How does milk get contaminated?

Milk contamination may occur from:

  • Cow feces coming into direct contact with the milk
  • Infection of the cow's udder (mastitis)
  • Cow diseases (e.g., bovine tuberculosis)
  • Bacteria that live on the skin of cows
  • Environment (e.g., feces, dirt, processing equipment)
  • Insects, rodents, and other animal vectors
  • Humans, for example, by cross-contamination from soiled clothing and boots

Pasteurization is the only way to kill many of the bacteria in milk that can make people very sick.

Information about raw milk-related outbreaks

States that allow the legal sale of raw milk for human consumption have more raw milk-related outbreaks of illness than states that do not allow raw milk to be sold legally.

Among dairy product-associated outbreaks reported to CDC between 1998 and 2011 in which the investigators reported whether the product was pasteurized or raw, 79% were due to raw milk or cheese. From 1998 through 2011, 148 outbreaks due to consumption of raw milk or raw milk products were reported to CDC. These resulted in 2,384 illnesses, 284 hospitalizations, and 2 deaths. Most of these illnesses were caused by Escherichia coli, Campylobacter, Salmonella, or Listeria. It is important to note that a substantial proportion of the raw milk-associated disease burden falls on children; among the 104 outbreaks from 1998-2011 with information on the patients’ ages available, 82% involved at least one person younger than 20 years old.

A study released by CDC in February 2012 examined the number of dairy outbreaks in the United States during a 13‐year period. Between 1993 and 2006, 60% (73/121) of dairy-related outbreaks reported to CDC were linked to raw milk products. Three‐quarters of these outbreaks occurred in states where the sale of raw milk was legal at the time. Experts also found that those sickened in raw milk outbreaks were 13 times more likely to be hospitalized than those who got ill from pasteurized milk during an outbreak.

As a consumer, you can take steps when grocery shopping and at home with all of your dairy products to minimize the risk of getting sick:

  1. Only consume pasteurized milk and milk products. Look for the word "pasteurized" on the dairy labels. If in doubt, don't buy it!
  2. Keep pasteurized dairy products refrigerated at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below at home and dispose of any expired products to reduce the risk of illness.
  3. If you consume soft, fresh, un-aged cheeses like queso fresco, make sure they are made from pasteurized milk. Aged cheeses made from raw milk are generally okay to eat because germs usually die off during the aging process. However, outbreaks associated with these cheeses have been identified.

Reported outbreaks represent the tip of the iceberg. For every outbreak and every illness reported, many others occur, and most illnesses are not part of recognized outbreaks. Protect yourself and your loved ones. Avoid raw milk, it's just not worth the risk.

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