CHICAGO — Since the beginning of the year, bills have been introduced in several state legislatures to loosen restrictions regarding intrastate sales of raw milk directly to consumers. Bills are currently pending in Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Raw milk proponents claim that pasteurization, the scientifically proven heat process designed to destroy pathogenic bacteria naturally found in milk, also destroys essential nutrients, immunity boosters and other functional compounds. Proponents claim that in addition to tasting better than pasteurized milk, drinking raw milk on a regular basis helps reduce allergies; improves health of skin, hair and nails; helps with weight loss; builds lean muscle and more. 

Raw milk with cows
Regulators and industry advocates are trying to inject science into the debate over the sale of raw milk.

At the federal level, the Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) bans interstate sale or distribution of raw milk. All milk sold across state lines must be pasteurized and meet the standards of the U.S. Pasteurized Milk Ordinance. States may adopt their own laws on raw milk sales. Since January 2013, the sale of raw milk in stores is legal in 12 states. Seventeen states only permit raw milk sales on farms, while four states only allow raw milk acquisition through cow-share agreements. Raw milk sales are prohibited in the remaining 17 states.

The International Dairy Foods Association (I.D.F.A.) and its members are actively involved in opposing the pending state legislative efforts to ease intrastate restrictions. Letters have been sent to many state committees explaining that “Easing the regulations around the state-wide sale of raw milk increases the risk to public health, opening up consumers to the inevitable consequence of falling victim to a foodborne illness.”

The I.D.F.A., the National Milk Producers Federation and many other organizations, including the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, oppose the sale of raw milk direct to consumers, because it is a public health concern. Food Business News spoke with Cary Frye, vice-president of regulatory and scientific affairs at I.D.F.A., to better understand this opposition.

Cary Frye
Cary Frye, vice-president of regulatory and scientific affairs at I.D.F.A.

Food Business News: Whose viewpoint is it that consuming raw milk is a public health concern?

Cary Frye: Milk and milk products provide a wealth of nutritional benefits. But raw milk from cows, sheep or goats can have harmful bacteria that affect the health of anyone who drinks it or eats foods made from raw milk. The dangerous bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria found in raw milk are responsible for causing numerous foodborne illnesses and are especially dangerous to people with weakened immune systems, older adults, pregnant women and children.

Risks about the consumption of raw milk are based on scientific evidence reviewed by F.D.A., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.) and the Institute of Medicine’s National Research Council of the National Academies. 

The F.D.A.’s web page on The Dangers of Raw Milk provides analysis by C.D.C., that between 1993 and 2006 more than 1,500 people in the U.S. became sick from drinking raw milk or eating cheese made from raw milk. In addition, C.D.C. reports that unpasteurized milk is 150 times more likely to cause foodborne illness and results in 13 times more hospitalizations than illnesses involving pasteurized dairy products.

With these authoritative bodies having scientific evidence to show raw milk is dangerous to human health, how did the U.S. ever even get to this point with allowing the sale of raw milk?

Ms. Frye: The practice of pasteurization results in heating milk above a specific temperature for a set time to destroy pathogenic microbes present in raw milk. Milk pasteurization requirements were first adopted in the U.S. in 1939 in the regulations of the Milk Ordinance and Code. In 1987, F.D.A. enacted regulations mandating the pasteurization of milk and milk products and banning the interstate distribution of unpasteurized milk in final package form for human consumption.

Milk pasteurizing machine
Pasteurization is practiced to destroy pathogenic microbes present in raw milk.

However, a state can adopt its own regulation for the sale of a product within its borders, which is known as “intrastate commerce.” Many vocal raw milk advocates are working to enact state legislation to allow the sale of raw milk within a state as a way to gain access to purchase raw milk.

What types of restrictions are the states trying to loosen?

Ms. Frye: The changes in regulations to allow the intrastate sale of raw milk for human consumption vary from state to state depending on what milk regulations are currently in place. Consumer advocates trying to gain more access to raw milk have pushed for state legislation to legalize raw milk sales by repealing state statutes and administrative rules that are identical to the federal ban on raw milk sale.

Another way to loosen regulations has been to appeal to states to make a policy decision that a cow-share program is allowable. Not many state bills have been successful. In 2015, Utah did enact a law allowing access to raw milk though shared animal ownership. But a similar cow-share bill passed in West Virginia by the legislator was vetoed by the governor based on its potential for “serious risk to public health.” In South Dakota, regulations for the sale of raw milk were tightened when the state senate passed a bill prohibiting raw milk sales at farmers’ markets or farm-owned stores. Raw milk sales on South Dakota dairy farms remain legal.

It seems in this day and age with food safety front and center after Chipotle’s recent situations, and other issues with Listeria in ice cream and cheese and E. coli on leafy vegetables, consumers would want to err on the side of caution. Why does it not resonate that pasteurization is a food safety technology not a process to destroy milk’s inherent nutrition?

Ms. Frye: Raw milk advocates are passionate about their beliefs that pasteurization can reduce milk’s nutrition and health value. They espouse that raw milk can help cure or treat asthma, allergies and it has beneficial bacteria to enhance gastrointestinal health and build their immune system. Raw milk advocates like “A campaign for real milk” believe it’s their right to have universal access to raw milk, especially for pregnant and nursing mothers and for babies and growing children.

Pasteurized milk warning
Raw milk advocates are passionate about their beliefs that pasteurization can reduce milk’s nutrition and health value.

The science has clearly debunked these myths about the benefits of raw milk and confirmed the risks of foodborne illness that can affect children, teenagers and the elderly. The web site Real Raw Milk Facts provides families’ real life accounts of their unexpected health consequences when they unfortunately purchased raw milk that contained dangerous bacteria.

One story is about Kylee Young who was two years old when she drank raw milk. Her parents thought the milk from a local farm would be healthier but it was contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. She became ill and nearly died of complications from an E. coli infection that led to kidney damage, stroke and central nervous system impairment, dramatically changing her life. Her mom said she would have made different choices if she knew about the risks of raw milk.