1. Wisconsin is not alone in its interest in raw milk. In May Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed a bill that would have allowed farmers to sell unpasteurized milk to consumers on a limited basis. But this is likely not the last we will hear about raw milk. Nationally consumer interest in raw milk is peaking, and 28 states now allow raw milk to be sold either directly to consumers or through retail outlets. Raw milk is also used in some forms of cheese, such as Parmesan or Cheddar, that are aged over long periods of time.
2. The risks associated with drinking raw milk are real. The federal government and public health agencies oppose consumption of raw milk because it can harbor pathogens such as Salmonella, Listeria, Campylobacter and toxic strains of E. coli, which can cause serious and sometimes fatal illnesses. More than 100 years of scientific study bear these risks out. Moreover, no farming practice can completely eliminate the presence of these pathogens. Only pasteurization, the process of heating milk to rid it of dangerous microbes, has proved effective.
3. The risks are also relatively small. Multiple surveys have shown that between 1 and 10 percent of raw milk samples are likely to contain pathogenic bacteria. It’s estimated that at least half of Wisconsin’s 13,000 dairy farm families consume raw milk, and we have not seen catastrophic consequences from this consumption. Farmers argue there is a bigger risk of getting hurt driving to a farm than there is from drinking raw milk, and that may well be true. But the reality of that risk remains.
4. Paradoxically, some people drink it for health reasons. Michael Bell, a CALS professor of community and environmental sociology, has done survey research to investigate why consumers drink raw milk despite its health risks. Many of the consumers in his study reported that raw milk helps them deal with personal or family health issues, including psoriasis, allergies, intestinal diseases, digestive problems and nervous system diseases. The root causes of these health problems are uncertain, and this is partly why sufferers seek alternative treatments. Although almost no reputable research has been done to test these potential health benefits, clearly many consumers have deeply held beliefs that drinking raw milk is worth the risk.
5. Food is usually presumed guilty until proven innocent. In this country, most regulatory systems put the burden on food manufacturers to prove their products are safe. There are clearly public safety reasons for that bias, but business interests also play a significant role. Food suppliers and their insurance companies don’t want to risk being liable in incidents of food contamination, and so they have a powerful incentive to err on the side of safety. The national chain Whole Foods, for example, has decided not to sell raw milk because of the high cost of potential liability.
Scott Rankin is an associate professor and current chair of the CALS Department of Food Science. An expert on the characterization of dairy food flavors, he studies the chemical reactions and compounds that create the unique flavors of cheese and other dairy products. He works closely with dairy processors throughout Wisconsin to solve flavor problems and improve techniques for making dairy products.