June is National Dairy Month. Unpasteurized dairy is growing in popularity, but it poses serious health risks. If you are a milk, cheese and dairy product lover, you’ll appreciate these myths and food safety tips about raw milk and cheese products.
Raw milk can harbor dangerous microorganisms, such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria, that can pose serious health risks to you and your family.
Here are some common myths and proven facts about milk and pasteurization:
- Raw milk DOES NOT kill dangerous pathogens by itself.
- Pasteurizing milk DOES NOT cause lactose intolerance and allergic reactions. Both raw milk and pasteurized milk can cause allergic reactions in people sensitive to milk proteins.
- Pasteurization DOES NOT reduce milk’s nutritional value.
- Pasteurization DOES NOT mean that it is safe to leave milk out of the refrigerator for extended time,particularly after it has been opened.
- Pasteurization DOES kill harmful bacteria.
- Pasteurization DOES save lives.
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Why is Pasteurization Important?
Pasteurization is the process by which a food is made safe to eat by killing pathogenic bacteria that can cause serious diseases (including polio, dysentery and many more). To pasteurize milk, it’s usually heated up to 161.6 degrees F for 15 seconds — a flash of high heat that kills the stuff that can make us sick.
Even as the CDC and FDA crack down on unpasteurized dairy because of its many health risks (listeria, E. coli, salmonella and campylobacter), raw milk somehow continues to grow in popularity. Some people drink unpasteurized milk for its alleged health benefits, claiming that raw, unpasteurized milk is easier to digest, helps protect against allergies and just tastes better and more natural than the homogenized, pasteurized milk we get at the store that’s produced en masse at dairy farms.
CDC Report: Raw milk and cheese products cause 96% of dairy product foodborne illnesses
A 2017 report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that raw milk and cheese products account for 96% of foodborne illnesses linked to contaminated dairy products and outbreaks linked to the consumption of cow’s milk and cheese were estimated to cause on average 761 illnesses and 22 hospitalizations per year in the United States.
Listeria monocytogenes is a health risk often connected to unpasteurized dairy products. It can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, pregnant women and the elderly.
As consumption of unpasteurized dairy products grows, illnesses will increase steadily; a doubling in the consumption of unpasteurized milk or cheese could increase outbreak-related illnesses. Proponents of raw milk consumption rave about its positive health effects, pointing out that leafy green vegetables actually cause more foodborne illnesses than dairy products.
Deaths in U.S. caused by listeria-tainted artisanal raw milk cheese
However, in March 2017, two people died following an outbreak of listeria linked to a popular artisanal raw milk cheese made in upstate New York. The deaths occurred in Vermont and Connecticut. Four other people in New York and Florida reported feeling sick after eating Ouleout, the artisanal cheese, which is produced by New York-based Vulto Creamery in Walton.
The deaths highlighted concerns over safety regulations around artisanal cheese production in the United States, particularly around the raw-milk cheese segment, which re-emerged only about a decade ago, experts say. The outbreak has also revived a continuing debate between the virtues of raw-milk cheese, which aficionados say tastes better, and safety. Some customers swear only by pasteurized-milk cheese.
Raw milk health scares
- In Idaho in 2014, the CDC reported that 11 individuals fell ill with cryptosporidiosis originating from raw goat’s milk contaminated with feces. 
- In early 2015, the Pennsylvania Agricultural Department put a stop to raw milk sales at a rural creamery after test samples came back positive for Campylobacter. At the time, the state’s health department had not reported any illnesses associated with raw milk purchased from the creamery. 
- In spring 2015, three children under age 5 were sickened with campylobacteriosis after consuming raw goat’s milk from Claravale Farm of San Benito County, CA. One of the children was hospitalized, but all were expected to recover from the foodborne illness. 
Infographic: Raw Milk and Food Safety
Source: CDC – Raw Milk and Food Safety
Proponents of raw milk and milk products
Raw milk is milk that has not been pasteurized. Milk is an excellent medium for microbial growth, and when stored at ambient temperature bacteria and other pathogens soon proliferate.
Ouleout cheese has been celebrated across the United States as much for its unusual back story as for its flavor: It was created by Jos Vulto, a Dutch artist linked to the Museum of Modern Art, who started making cheese in his apartment and aging it under a sidewalk in Brooklyn.
Europeans have also eaten raw-milk cheese for hundreds of years. In France, for example, 15 percent of its cheese is made of unpasteurized milk, according to French agricultural statistics. The thinking is that when milk is cooked, or pasteurized, many of the flavor-rich enzymes are destroyed.
Raw vs. Pasteurized Milk
Those favoring the consumption of raw milk believe that raw milk and associated products are healthier and taste better. Those favoring the consumption of pasteurized milk consider the pathogen risk associated with drinking raw milk unacceptable.
The CDC official study–Outbreak-Related Disease Burden Associated with Consumption of Unpasteurized Cow’s Milk and Cheese, United States, 2009–2014–can be found in the June 2017 issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, a CDC publication.
Food Safety and Raw Milk (CDC)
Comprehensive information on the dangers of raw milk, including:
- Real Stories of the Dangers of Raw Milk (videos)
- Raw Milk Questions and Answers (CDC)
- Trying to Decide About Raw Milk?
The Dangers of Raw Milk (FDA)
Raw milk can harbor dangerous microorganisms that can pose serious health risks.
Questions & Answers: Raw Milk (FDA)
Raw milk is not safe to drink. Find out more about the risks.
Raw Milk May Pose Health Risk (FDA)
Consumer update on raw milk
Raw Milk Misconceptions and the Danger of Raw Milk Consumption (FDA)
Point and counterpoint on popular myths about raw milk
The Dangers of Raw Milk (FDA)
Unpasteurized milk can pose a serious health risk
Food Safety and Raw Milk (FDA)
Understanding health risks associated with raw milk.
Raw Milk Questions and Answers
Frequently asked questions and answers about the risks of drinking raw milk.