Raw milk can carry harmful germs that can make you very sick or kill you. If you’re thinking about drinking raw milk because you believe it has health benefits, consider other options.
Developing a healthy lifestyle requires you to make many decisions. One step you might be thinking about is adding raw milk to your diet. Raw milk is milk that has not been pasteurized (heating to a specific temperature for a set amount of time to kill harmful germs). Germs include bacteria, viruses, and parasites.
Making milk safe
Milk and products made from milk need minimal processing, called pasteurization. This process includes:
- Heating the milk briefly (for example, heating it to 161°F for about 15 seconds)
- Rapidly cooling the milk
- Practicing sanitary handling
- Storing milk in clean, closed containers at 40°F or below
When milk is pasteurized, disease-causing germs are killed. 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.
Risks of drinking raw milk
Raw milk can carry harmful bacteria and other germs that can make you very sick or even kill you. While it is possible to get foodborne illnesses from many different foods, raw milk is one of the riskiest of all. Getting sick from raw milk can mean many days of diarrhea, stomach cramping, and vomiting. Less commonly, it can mean kidney failure, paralysis, chronic disorders, and even death.
Many people who chose raw milk thinking they would improve their health instead found themselves (or their loved ones) sick in a hospital for several weeks fighting for their lives from infections caused by germs in raw milk. For example, a person can develop severe or even life-threatening diseases, such as Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can cause paralysis, and hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can result in kidney failure and stroke.
Who is at greatest risk of getting sick from drinking raw milk?
The risk of getting sick from drinking raw milk is greater for
- young children,
- the elderly, and
- people with weakened immune systems, such as people with cancer, an organ transplant, or HIV/AIDS.
However, it is important to remember that healthy people of any age can get very sick or even die if they drink raw milk that is contaminated with harmful germs.
Aren’t raw or natural foods better than processed foods?
Many people believe that foods with no or minimal processing are better for their health. However, some types of processing are needed to protect health. For example, consumers process raw meat, poultry, and fish for safety by cooking. Similarly, when milk is pasteurized, it is heated just long enough to kill disease-causing germs. Most nutrients remain after milk is pasteurized.
Some people choose to drink raw milk because they have heard that raw milk may be a good source of beneficial bacteria. Unfortunately, raw milk can also contain harmful bacteria. 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, so-called probiotic bacteria are sometimes added to pasteurized, fermented foods, such as yogurt and kefir.
Many people also believe that small, local farms are better sources of healthy food. There are many local, small farms that offer pasteurized organic milk and cheese products.
I’ve heard that many organic and raw milk producers are creating sanitary and humane conditions for raising animals and producing “safe” raw milk and raw milk products (like cheeses and yogurts). Does this help reduce milk contamination?
Adherence to good hygienic practices during milking can reduce, but not eliminate, the risk of milk contamination. The dairy farm environment is a reservoir for illness-causing germs. No matter what precautions farmers take, and even if their raw milk tests come back negative, they cannot guarantee that their milk, or the products made from their milk, are free of harmful germs.
- Germs such as Escherichia coli, Campylobacter, and Salmonella can contaminate milk during the process of milking dairy animals, including cows, sheep, and goats. Animals that carry these germs usually appear healthy.
How does milk get contaminated?
Milk contamination may occur 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
- Humans, for example, by cross-contamination from soiled clothing and boots
Pasteurization is the only way to kill many of the bacteria in milk that can make people very sick.
Information about raw milk-related outbreaks
States that allow the legal sale of raw milk for human consumption have more raw milk-related outbreaks of illness than states that do not allow raw milk to be sold legally. Experts also found that those sickened in raw milk outbreaks were 13 times more likely to be hospitalized than those who got ill from pasteurized milk during an outbreak.
Among dairy product-associated outbreaks reported to CDC during 2007 and 2012 in which the investigators reported whether the product was pasteurized or raw, 81% were due to raw milk or cheese. A study released by CDC in January 2014 examined the number of outbreaks associated with raw milk in the United States during this 6‐year period. From 2007 through 2012, 81 outbreaks due to consumption of raw milk were reported to CDC from 26 states. These outbreaks resulted in 979 illnesses and 73 people were hospitalized. Most of these illnesses were caused by Campylobacter, Escherichia coli O157, or Salmonella. Most (81%) outbreaks occurred in states where the sale of raw milk was legal at the time. It is important to note that a substantial proportion of the raw milk-associated disease burden falls on children. Of the 78 outbreaks from 2007 to 2012 with information on the patients’ ages available, 59% involved at least one child under the age of 5 years.
As a consumer, you can take steps when grocery shopping and at home with all of your dairy products to minimize the risk of getting sick:
- Only consume pasteurized milk and milk products. Look for the word “pasteurized” on the dairy labels. If in doubt, don’t buy it!
- Keep pasteurized dairy products refrigerated at 40°F or below at home and dispose of any expired products to reduce the risk of illness.
- If you consume soft, fresh, un-aged cheeses like queso fresco, make sure they are made from pasteurized milk. Aged cheeses made from raw milk are generally okay to eat because germs usually die off during the aging process. However, outbreaks associated with these cheeses have been identified.
Reported outbreaks represent the tip of the iceberg. For every outbreak and every illness reported, many others occur, and most illnesses are not part of recognized outbreaks. Protect yourself and your loved ones. Avoid raw milk, it’s just not worth the risk.