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Why Raw Milk Outbreaks Are On the Rise

TIME Health
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Raw milk skips the commercial chain of pasteurization and homogenization, and many proponents drink to the promise of a purer, less processed food. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has long warned that the consumption of raw milk, which poses serious risks to Americans' health, is nothing more than a misguided health trend . Now, a new report from the agency shows that the yearly number of outbreaks from raw milk is increasing.

Nearly 1,000 people were sickened from raw milk outbreaks from 2007-2012, the report says, and 73 went to the hospital. The new study shows there were an average of 13 outbreaks per year from disease-causing bacteria that can be present in unpasteurized milk between the years 2007-2012, with 81 total outbreaks in 26 states.

That rate has quadrupled since 1993-2006, the data set used when CDC last studied the subject. That time period saw only three outbreaks per year.

Some advocates have argued raw milk is a solution for people who are lactose intolerant, but the CDC and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says this is untrue.

"I think there are a lot of people [who are part of] this back-to-nature movement, wanting to support local farms and eat organically. I think the raw milk movement has emerged as part of that," says CDC epidemiologist Hannah Gould. But because it's not pasteurized, raw milk can be dangerous. Bacteria like salmonella, E. coli and Campylobacter can all be found in raw milk, and you'd have to heat it to 161 °F for about 20 seconds to kill it off, says the CDC. One of the CDC's awareness campaign shows a raw milk horror story from a mother who fed it to her son, than saw him go into kidney failure and be placed on a ventilator.

In 1987, the FDA banned interstate sale or distribution of unpasteurized milk, but states set their own laws when it comes to what can be sold in-state. Currently, 30 states allow the legal sale of raw milk, and since 2004, eight new states have allowed the sale. The new data shows more than 80% of the outbreaks tallied in the new report occurred in states where selling raw milk is allowed.

"As states continue to legalize raw milk, I would expect it’s likely we will see more outbreaks and illnesses associated with it," says Gould. "When we see something happening like this huge increase in the number of outbreaks caused by raw milk, we try to put out the message that this going on, and provide that information to state legislators trying to make decisions about raw milk as well as alert consumers to the risks."

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