Over the last years I have tried to bring some level of rationality to the debate over the consumption of raw milk. I first published on my blog a summary of the findings of a review of peer-reviewed literature on the topic of the "pros" of the consumption of raw milk. Several people from both sides of the raw milk debate have told me that the “pros” review is one of the most comprehensive compilations of peer-reviewed literature examining the potential benefits of raw milk beyond basic nutrition. I then posted about the "cons." What about the “cons?” As I said, the overwhelming “con” of drinking raw milk according to the literature relates to food safety hazards. Below are the realities of those “con’s.”

I would ask the proponents – small dairy farmers trying to make a buck, retailers trying to make even more, the Weston A. Price Association, the Complete Patient, people who believe that drinking raw milk cures everything from asthma, autism, eczema, and erectile dysfunction, to policy makers considering allowing the sales of raw milk – PLEASE read the above links, "Comparing the Food Safety Record of Pasteurized and Raw Milk Products," and read what happened in outbreaks to consumers.

Organic Pastures

Chris Martin, then age seven, developed an E. coli O157:H7 infection in September 2006 following consumption of raw milk. He was hospitalized beginning on September 8, suffering from severe gastrointestinal symptoms, including bloody diarrhea. Shortly thereafter, he developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). In an effort to properly treat his rapidly deteriorating condition, Chris was moved to multiple medical facilities, twice by life-flight. His HUS was remarkably severe, marked by prolonged renal failure, pancreatitis, and severe cardiac involvement. He required 18 days of renal replacement therapy. On two occasions his cardiac problems became so severe that he was placed on a ventilator. At several junctures, the possibility that he might not survive was very real. Ultimately he was hospitalized through November 2, after incurring over $550,000 in medical bills. Renal experts have opined that Chris is likely to develop severe renal complications in the future. These complications include end stage renal disease (ESRD) and kidney transplant.

Herb Depot/Autum Olives Farms

Larry Pedersen had just turned one year old when he developed an E. coli O157:H7 in May 2008. When his diarrhea turned bloody, his parents took him for medical treatment. He was admitted to the hospital on May 8. Shortly thereafter, Larry developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) and was transferred to a specialty care facility. As is typical of HUS, Larry was then suffering from acute renal failure. He was started on dialysis, which was necessary at that point for his survival. He required 15 days of dialysis before his kidneys recovered enough to function on their own. Larry was discharged on May 29, to continue recovery and treatment on an outpatient basis. The medical bills associated with his care approached $90,000. As the result of damage to his kidneys suffered during his bout with HUS, Larry is at significant risk for severe renal complications in the future. These complications include end stage renal disease (ESRD) and kidney transplant.

Nicole Riggs developed an E. coli O157:H7 infection in May 2008 from consumption of raw goat’s milk. She was nine years old at the time. Nicole suffered from symptoms typical of E. coli O157:H7 infections – bloody diarrhea, cramping, and nausea – that quickly intensified and led to her hospitalization on May 8, 2008. Once hospitalized, Nicole developed renal failure, anemia, and thrombocytopenia (low platelet count) indicating that she was developing HUS. She was transferred to a Children’s hospital and started on dialysis in order to save her life. She received dialysis for 18 days. Nicole’s renal function slowly returned to the point that she was deemed healthy enough for discharge on June 1. After discharge, she remained under the care of a nephrologist. In addition, damage suffered during her HUS has required that her gall bladder be removed. Medical costs to this point exceed $180,000. As the result of damage to her kidneys suffered during her bout with HUS, Nicole is at significant risk for severe renal complications in the future.

Alexandre EcoDairy Farm

Mari Tardiff was one of those sickened in the 2008 outbreak of campylobacter connected to raw milk sold by Alexandre EcoDairy Farm. As a result of her campylobacter infection, Mari developed Guillain Barré syndrome, or GBS, a potentially fatal inflammatory disorder. GBS is an infrequent, but well-known risk of campylobacter infection. By the time she was hospitalized in mid June, Mari was essentially paralyzed. On June 15, Mari was intubated and placed on mechanical ventilation. For weeks on end, Mari’s condition remained unchanged. She was heavily sedated, unable to move, and entirely dependent on mechanical ventilation for survival. In August, there were indications of slight improvement, and the very slow process of weaning Mari off mechanical ventilation began. At the outset, it was not clear that the process was successful. Through incredible effort on Mari’s part, she was fully weaned off mechanical ventilation by August 20, and discharged to a rehabilitation facility. She spent more than two months at the rehabilitation facility diligently attempting to re-acquire the ability to speak, breathe, and move her arms and legs on her own. She was discharged home on November 1, still in need of essentially 24-hour care. Since that time, she has worked every day toward achieving her goal, as yet unreached, of walking again. Medical expenses to date exceed $1,000,000.

  • Hi Bill,
    A couple of points:
    First of all, there is no food that is completely safe. Every food has hazards. I believe that care and handling have a profound effect on the safety of every type of food.
    Second of all, your review of the medical literature is extensive–and actually affirms my conviction that raw milk is significantly different from pasteurized milk from a nutritional point of view, and better. The “science” does tend to lag people’s experience…especially when there is no multi-billion-dollar industry funding studies, as there is none in this case. Immune disease is the plague of modern times; shall we really ban something that may hold immense promise for healing the immune system?
    Thirdly, to be balanced, you might document some of the serious outbreaks that have been caused by (poorly-handled) *pasteurized* milk. Some of these outbreaks have affected tens or hundreds of thousands of people. Or outbreaks caused by ground beef.
    I recommend that you turn your efforts and scrutiny away from raw milk, and more fully towards the horrors of factory meat and milk. They would provide more deserving subjects for your work.
    Alex Lewin

  • Clarification: Strike “would” from the last sentence in my previous comment. It makes it sound like I think Bill Marler does not currently pay attention to factory farming; I do not mean to imply this. I think factory farming is the best target for his work, not raw milk.

  • swdhj

    If you do get an e-coli infection–whether from raw milk, pasteurized milk, raw spinach, peanut butter, or contaminated water;
    D-mannose is a proven HUS inhibitor.

  • Kalee

    @ Swdhj Sources? Links? Studies? …. I’m curious… I’ve never even heard of that before, and As far as I know there are no “proven” ways to stop HUS…

  • Lynn

    I consider pasteurized milk to be a nonfood, and an allergen…the raw form at least has nutritional content. I do not feel dairy does a body good in any form. No other animal consumes milk (its own kind) after weaning. I recommend the raw form only for those who tend toward growth and failure to thrive issues, otherwise I would have them avoid it in any form.

  • Bill — I appreciate the work you do on behalf of food safety, and my heart goes out to the patients and their families who have become ill. However, any review of the “cons” of raw milk is incomplete without giving a side-by-side comparison of the risks of raw milk compared to the risks of commonly eaten foods. Any story (and video) of a child made sick by food is heartbreaking, and it does what it is meant to do – it pulls emotional strings, sometimes bypassing the logical part of the brain.
    So, let’s turn the logical part of our brains back on, and do a comparison. How about if you show us the number of people (per capita of consumption) who have been sickened from ground beef, deli meats, seafood, raw spinach, and raw milk? Only then – when raw milk illnesses are allowed to stand side-by-side with the illnesses caused by very commonly consumed foods – are we really in a position to evaluate its risks compared to its benefits.
    Speaking of its benefits, how about if you post some videos of the millions of children who suffer from type 2 diabetes and obesity, or some adults suffering heart attacks at age 45 — all symptoms of our overly processed, junk laden food system? Why, oh why, is it that we live in a culture that considers twinkies safe for children (at least, I don’t see them on Bill’s website – they must be bacteria free) but get ourselves worked into a lather about raw milk?

  • Scott

    Well, this is certainly a little hysterical.
    I grew up drinking raw milk. We’d drive out to the fields, where the farmer we bought from had his barn, and get it in big gallon jars. When he ran out of the glass milk jars, he sometimes put it in old gallon mayonnaise jars. Most of the time (probably because we tended to get there right after the evening milking) it would still be warm from the cow. I’m not dead. None of my siblings are dead. None of us are paralyzed, none of us are having health issues.
    Funny thing, I get a blood titer analysis annually to see if inoculations I’ve received are still potent, or if I need a refresh (part of my job). The scale says if I have an antibody count above 800, I’m still good. My antibody count is over 14,000. I’ve never had the flu – ever. I don’t get colds when they’re being passed around the office. My siblings are the same. Maybe it’s a genetic fluke. Or maybe not.

  • Sean

    So, throw the baby out with the bath water, is it?
    I’m sorry, I personally, know someone who got e-coli from eating at Wendy’s. Do we make all fast food illegal? or just Wendy’s or just hamburgers or just raw milk? What is your point, dear Sir?
    You can get e-coli from eating anything not handled correctly, am I right? Sushi anyone?
    So, why the really weird witch hunt over natural raw milk? Why not fast food chains or hamburgers or sushi???
    Pasteurized milk came along during the industrial revolution, because things were really gross as far as health standards were concerned, so I understand pasteurization and it’s benefits for the masses but before that, Biblical and beyond, people just drank milk straight from the source unmolested, right?
    Plus,If someone wants to drink raw milk they should educate themselves on the risk and choose, right?
    Doesn’t smoking or alcohol kill more people than natural raw milk?
    And they are both legal with warnings, right?
    What is your odd weird point my friend?
    I’m sorry, but to me, and this is just me speaking, your warning is as clear as mud, and smells to high heaven of Big Money…which also smells similar to pasteurize Corporate Bullshit.
    Smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol and eating raw fish and fast food are all known to be possibly if not flat out hazardous to one’s health and you’re wasting your time telling us natural raw milk could be bad for us?
    You’ve got issues or too much time on your hands or the Milk industry is paying you way to much to put up a flimsy argument.
    Good luck in your cause to ban a natural food