Raw Milk

What’s the Problem?

Some people choose to drink raw milk because they have heard that raw milk might be a good source of beneficial bacteria. Unfortunately, raw milk can also contain harmful bacteria and other germs that can cause illness or even death. Raw milk is milk from cows, goats, sheep, or other animals that has not been pasteurized.

Pasteurization is a process that involves heating milk to a high temperature for a certain amount of time to kill pathogens (disease-causing germs) in the milk. Harmful germs usually don’t change the look, taste, or smell of milk, so you can only be confident that these germs are not present when milk has been pasteurized.

While it is possible to get foodborne illnesses from many different foods, raw milk is one of the riskiest of all. People who choose to consume raw milk may end up sick in a hospital for several weeks fighting infections caused by germs in raw milk or develop severe or even life-threatening diseases, such as Guillain-Barré syndrome. Guillain-Barré syndrome can cause paralysis and hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can result in kidney failure and stroke.

In the past 15 years, more than 150 outbreaks with nearly 2,500 infections linked to raw milk have been reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Who’s at Risk?

Healthy people of any age can become sick from drinking raw milk contaminated with harmful germs.

The risk is greater for infants and young children, older adults, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems, such as people with cancer, organ transplants, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, and those receiving certain treatments such as chemotherapy.

The risks of drinking raw milk may result in contamination 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; or
  • humans, for example, by cross-contamination from soiled clothing and boots

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Can It Be Prevented?

Avoiding the consumption of raw milk or products (e.g. soft cheeses) that have been prepared using raw milk is the best prevention.

Pasteurized milk and pasteurized milk products offer all of the nutritional benefits of raw milk without the risk of disease that can happen with consuming unpasteurized milk.

If you are looking for sources of bacteria that may be beneficial to your health, consider getting them from foods that do not involve as high of a risk as raw milk. For example, probiotic bacteria are sometimes added to pasteurized, fermented foods like yogurt and kefir. Also, there are many local small farms that offer pasteurized organic milk and cheese products.

The Bottom Line

  • Raw milk and products made with raw milk such as yogurt, soft cheeses and ice cream can result in severe illness and even life-threatening infections.
  • Consuming raw milk is especially dangerous to infants and young children, and people with weakened immune systems.
  • Pasteurization offers the nutritional benefits of drinking milk without the risks associated with raw milk.
    – Even if a farmer’s testing of raw milk come back free of harmful bacteria, they cannot guarantee that their raw milk, or the product(s) made from their raw milk, is free of harmful germs.
    – Germs such as Escherichia coli, Campylobacter, and Salmonella can contaminate milk during the process of milking dairy animals

Case Example

Kim, a 25 year-old rising starlet, breastfed her baby girl Jamie until she was 12 months old. Kim read that raw milk was a healthier alternative to regular cow’s milk, so she transitioned Jamie to organic raw cow’s milk that she bought from a local California grocer. Selling raw milk is legal in California.

Two weeks later, Jamie started vomiting and having severe watery diarrhea. As the day progressed, the diarrhea became bloody and Kim took her to the emergency room. Because Jamie was dehydrated, she was admitted to the hospital for IV fluids. The doctors sent a stool sample to the lab to test for pathogens.

The bloody diarrhea persisted and 36 hours later, Jamie became very pale and developed swelling around her eyes, hands, and feet. She also began to have problems breathing. These were signs of kidney failure and Jamie was transferred to the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU). She was profoundly anemic (low blood count) and needed to be placed on a ventilator to help her breathe. Her kidney failure worsened and Jamie required dialysis.

The lab tests on her stool showed E. coli O157:H7, which is a strain known to cause serious illness. Jamie developed hemolytic-uremic syndrome, also called “HUS,” a complication of E. coli O157:H7. With HUS, the red blood cells breakdown (hemolysis) and the kidneys can fail (uremia). She required two weeks of kidney dialysis, multiple needle sticks and a prolonged stay in the PICU.

Jamie was fortunate, because her kidney failure improved. HUS can cause permanent kidney failure and a need for kidney transplant. Although she recovered physically, Jamie developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from her extensive hospitalization. She became very withdrawn, combative to other children, and fearful of being separated from her parents for even a few minutes. She required psychological counseling and play therapy, and after several months Jamie returned to her happy toddler self.

Page last reviewed: September 15, 2017