Got raw milk? We may have a problem

America’s disease detectives credit pasteurization of milk as one of the great health advances of the 20th century. But drinkers of raw milk argue the heating process that destroys dangerous pathogens also kills beneficial nutrients and vitamins.

Advocates are accelerating their lobbying in some of the 23 states that ban sales of un-pasteurized milk, arguing that it’s no more dangerous than raw meat or un-pasteurized fruit juice. Encouraging dairy farmers to sell un-pasteurized milk at the farm gate will save small farms that are losing their milk markets, they say.

“Technology is destroying nature’s perfect food,” said Sally Fallon, head of the Weston A. Price Foundation in Washington, who argues Americans would be healthier returning to drinking raw milk. The foundation is spearheading a drive to make raw milk more available.

However, raw milk can contain dangerous pathogens. Last year, the Centers for Disease Control traced the source of an outbreak of a dangerous E. coli pathogen that sickened 15 children and 3 adults to a farm in Washington state that distributed raw milk. CDC disease detectives in 2002 also traced a multi-state outbreak of Salmonella to an Ohio farm that sold raw milk.

CDC spokeswoman Jennifer Morcone said pasteurization has demonstrated that it can keep dangerous pathogens out of the nation’s food system, and the process kills pathogens that are only minor human health problems in the United States today, such as brucellosis and bovine tuberculosis. There was an outbreak of bovine tuberculosis in New York, CDC in 1995 linked to illegally imported Mexican cheese made from raw milk, she said.

“We have overwhelmingly improved our food supply system through pasteurization,” she said. “Pasteurization is one of the top 10 health achievements of the last century.”

Stephen Barrett, a physician who runs the Web site, says even state-certified raw milk can contain disease-producing organisms and that contaminated milk has been linked to cases of undulant fever, dysentery and tuberculosis. Barrett acknowledged pasteurization does kill from 10 percent to 30 percent of heat-sensitive vitamins like Vitamin C and thiamine, but he said milk is not a significant source of these nutrients in the human diet.

But Fallon said pasteurization not only changes the taste of milk, but degrades the nutrients it contains.

Children raised on farms for years were raised on raw milk from the family cow without adverse affects, Fallon said, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has programs aimed at wiping out tuberculosis and brucellosis in America’s cattle herds.

According to the charity’s 2004 tax returns, the Weston A. Price Foundation spent more than $400,000 on educational campaigns promoting a return to raw milk. Fallon said her organization has been active this year persuading lawmakers in Tennessee and Kentucky to change state laws. She said the group also was successful in beating back efforts to ban raw milk sales in Colorado and gets support from legislators who grew up on farms and are familiar with raw milk.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned interstate sales of raw milk and raw-milk products in 1986 in response to a court suit. But the FDA left it up to states to decide whether to permit sales within their borders. That could change with a proposed new federal law adopted by the House this year requiring states to obtain federal approval for all regulations labeling food products.

Today, 27 states permit sales of raw milk, either directly at the farm gate or through “cow sharing” programs under which people buy shares in diary cows so they can obtain raw milk for their families. Where raw-milk sales are permitted, state regulations generally require that the milk be tested to ensure it doesn’t have a high bacterial count, and permit sales only in containers with labels warning the contents are un-pasteurized.

Both sides in the debate acknowledge that the number of people who drink raw milk is small. The National Milk Producers Association, representing the dairy industry, said the amount of raw milk sold customers is impossible to determine. “It’s not even grass roots _ its under grass roots,” said spokesman Chris Galen.

Fallon agrees the numbers are small _ “about 100,000 people,” she said. But she said interest in raw milk is increasing, as back-to-basics consumers are turning away from industrialized food and increasingly searching for organically grown, natural milk and cheese products.

“Raw milk today is where organics was 20 years ago,” she said.

Kate Rossiter, organic dairy coordinator for the Massachusetts-based Northeast Organic Farming Association, said raw-milk sales promise to save small dairy farms, which are being driven out of business as America’s dairy industry consolidates.

Farmers can sell raw milk in Massachusetts for up to $6 a gallon, compared with $1 a gallon for milk sold to commercial operators.

“This is going to keep farmers in business in Massachusetts,” said Rossiter, who encourages farmers thinking of selling raw milk to make the transition back into creating organic dairies.

“There are a lot of consumers out there,” she said. Rossiter said she first tasted raw milk a year ago and became a convert. “There’s nothing like it in the store,” she said.

(Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)