Is Raw Milk Really Good for You?
It might taste great, but pasteurization was invented for a reason.
By Kiera Butler | September/October 2012 | Mother Jones
Over the past year, I’ve been involved in an illegal, underground, super-secret speakeasy. I smuggled contraband to my house, even distributed it among my friends. Nope, not meth: milk. Creamy, delicious, unpasteurized milk.
When I first tried raw milk, I found the taste odd, but soon I came to crave its distinctive flavor. Better yet, I was told it could cure my allergies and eczema. “People see amazing results when they give this stuff to their kids—they have ear infections and asthma and allergies, and with raw milk it goes away,” says Mark McAfee, CEO of Fresno, California-based Organic Pastures, the nation’s largest raw-milk dairy. McAfee pointed me to a peer-reviewed study suggesting a link between raw-milk consumption and diminished allergy rates—as the theory goes, raw milk contains proteins and compounds that somehow keep the immune system from overreacting to allergens.
But I’d also heard it could make you sick, so after catching a news program about an E. coli outbreak in California, I decided to do some digging. What I learned was not terribly appetizing: Milk that hasn’t undergone pasteurization—a heating process that kills pathogens—can harbor bacteria such as campylobacter, listeria, and E. coli—all of which can cause severe illness and even death. That’s why selling raw milk is illegal in 18 states. (It’s legal here in California, and even sold in supermarkets—but only if it’s inspected. Mine wasn’t.) Still, it’s gaining popularity. Organic Pastures is an $8.5 million company, with sales growing about 22 percent a year, McAfee says. He attributes the company’s success to public awareness of raw milk’s ability to bolster the immune system—an anecdotal claim with no evidence to support it. “In the majority of people, it works fantastically well,” he says, “and they don’t pick up the next superbug that comes down the road.”
Try telling that to the Martin family of Murrieta, California. Back in 2006, pasteurized milk was making seven-year-old Chris congested, so his mom, Mary McGonigle-Martin, began buying raw milk from Organic Pastures—which is rigorously inspected and which, at that time, had no reported outbreaks. A few weeks later, Chris picked up E. coli from a tainted batch, a state investigation concluded. His kidneys failed, landing him in the hospital for two months. Now 13, he is off dialysis, but doctors aren’t sure whether Chris’ kidneys will hold out. “It was the shock of a lifetime,” his mother told me. “If not for modern medicine, he would have died.” (The family filed a legal claim against the company, which disputed the source of the bacteria but settled the case out of court.)
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