The answer: well-educated, late 20-somethings.  (Sounds like the demographic you’d expect to see in a Jimmy Johns sprouts E. coli outbreak too).   The reasons: a desire to support local farms, taste preference, and a belief that raw milk is more healthful and digestible than processed milk.

Angela Renee Katafiasz and Paul Bartlett, at Michigan State University’s Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences undertook this study to figure out what the demographic was, and why those people drink a product known to pose serious health risks (Note, Family Cow Dairy outbreak has now sickened 80 with campylobacter in 4 states, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and West Virginia.)  It is published in Food Protection Trends, Vol. 32, No. 3, Pages 124–128.

Based on the data collected, the average raw milk consumer in Michigan can be described as a well-educated adult around 29 years of age who typically lives in a rural area. This study also suggests that the movement toward drinking raw milk is a somewhat recent development, as most respondents began drinking raw milk within the last five years. Respondents were evidently very dedicated to drinking raw milk, since a majority drank raw milk exclusively and travel a great distance (mean of 24 miles) to obtain raw milk. The proposed health benefits of raw milk consumption were a major reason for their loyalty to the product. Unfortunately, there is little scientific evidence to support the beliefs regarding raw milk’s health benefits.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 69 outbreaks of human infections resulting from consumption of raw milk were reported from 1993 to 2006. These outbreaks included 1,505 reported illnesses, 185 hospitalizations, and 2 deaths (4). In 2010, Michigan had two Campylobacter foodborne outbreaks associated with raw milk (2, 8). In 2011, three probable cases of Q-fever were reported in people who participated in raw milk cow-share arrangements and were presumably caused by raw milk consumption (9). Epidemiologic data on foodborne disease outbreaks reported during 2006 indicated that dairy products accounted for only 3% of single-commodity outbreaks during that year (3). Seventy-one percent of those dairy outbreaks were attributed to raw milk.

Pasteurization does not, however, guarantee a safe product. Failures during or after milk pasteurization have actually caused the third (Cumbria, England, 1999, 117 cases) and fourth (West Lothian, Scotland, 1994, 71 cases) largest E. coli O157:H7outbreaks in the United Kingdom (14). While this proves that pasteurization is not infallible, foodborne illness outbreaks attributed to pasteurized milk products are very uncommon, considering the large number of people who consume them.