Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Get your hands off my milk!

As you are almost certainly unaware, the battle over sales of unpasteurized milk (so called raw milk) is heating up. Essentially, it is illegal to sell unpasteurized milk in most instance, but Wisconsin is considering allowing on-farm sales of the stuff. Of course, raw milk is largely illegal in Minnesota, on the grounds that if our state can ban anything, it will. Lutherans love being told what to do.

Recently, Kare 11 aired a pretty useless feature on the raw milk question. The piece is pretty one-sided, pitting the arguments of Petra Brokken, a St. Paul mother against an epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of health Kirk Smith.

Brokken argues that raw milk has helped her daughter, born severely premature, grow to be healthy and capable. It's an emotional appeal, one quickly drowned in Mr. Smith's dismissively bureaucratic claim that "The benefits haven't really been shown scientifically, but the risks certainly have." The piece concludes with a frumpy looking regulator chick from the University of Minnesota more or less threatening an unnamed farm that sells raw milk in Minnesota.

But what risks "have been shown scientifically"? Mr. Smith's use of the passive voice set off my BS detector. He elaborates:

Smith says pathogens from raw milk like salmonella and campylobacter are suspected of sickening 50 to 60 people each year in Minnesota and have been blamed for at least one death in recent years.

Hmmm... The "pathogens from raw milk are suspected". That's not quite the same as saying raw milk sickened 50 to 60 people, is it?

I did some research (since Kare 11 could not be bothered), and I found a University of Minnesota study on outbreaks related to raw milk. It cites nine different outbreaks associated with raw milk between the years of 1986 and 2007. Here's a play by play:

The first case, an outbreak of listeria, resulted in no confirmed cases. Some outbreak.

The second, a salmonella outbreak infecting some 136 people, was part of a national outbreak from bad processed cheese. The cheese was not made from raw milk, so I'm not sure why the incident appears on this chart.

The chart also cites a salmonella outbreak affecting as many as 35,000 people in 1994. This, of course, was the famous Schwan's ice cream outbreak, which nearly bankrupted the company. The outbreak stemmed from the delivery of ingredients in a truck that had been used to store raw eggs. Again, why is this cited in a study regarding raw milk?

It seems that the standard for suspecting raw milk is the mere fact that pathogen's that are also present in some raw milk were present in a particular outbreak. Raw milk can cause salmonella poisoning, and so all cases of salmonella poisoning are attributed to raw milk. This is egregiously circular reasoning.

In fact, according to the chart, only 34 confirmed cases of campylobacter (and none of salmonella) could be traced directly to the ingestion of raw milk. Campylobacter is better known as the sporadic bacteria that causes traveler's diarrhea. Unpleasant though it is, it is treated symptomatically with over the counter medication.

So raw milk is responsible for 1.6 cases of traveler's diarrhea annually. Based on what I have been able to find, raw milk constitutes just under 1% of all milk consumption nationally. In other words, if every single milk drinker switched to raw milk, we would be looking at maybe 200 cases of campylobacter per year.

Considering that there are 900 reported cases of campylobacter reported statewide every year (more than half are caused by uncooked poultry), and considering that only a small percentage of residents would opt for raw milk, I can scarcely see why the ban is warranted.

Raw milk advocates claim that the pasteurization destroys nutrients and bacteria that aid in digestion. This is largely incontrovertible. After all, that's what pasteurization is supposed to do. It kills things. The jury is out on the question of how essential these nutrients are. Anecdotally, the stuff tastes a hell of a lot better, and failed to cause the nominal level of abdominal distress I usually get from store bought milk. Many who are lactose intolerant are reportedly able to consume raw milk with no ill effects, though the result may be psychosomatic.

Not only is the science behind the pasteurization mandate far from overwhelming, it emanates from the same federal-agricultural complex that gives us high fructose corn syrup and Cargill beef. There is money in pasteurization, and our federal government has a long and rich history of rigging the game to favor dairy interests. The fact that none of the AMA, CDC etc... Is making any effort to study the possible health benefits (thereby allowing them to assert that no scientific studies have demonstrated them) should tell you who has skin in the game.

But, even if I embrace the most credulous reading of the science, there is simply no reason why I should not be able to buy the milk I want. I am tired of the iron whims of science arbitrarily dictating that which I can and cannot do. If I think raw milk is good for me, I don't need bureaucrats with bowl cuts standing in my way.

Fire Kirk Smith, use the money to fix potholes, and let me drink whatever I want.


Blogger Eric said...

Excellent post. U.S. agriculture policy is beholden to the large Ag interests and either intentionally or unintentionally does its best to drive small producers out of the market.

10:00 AM  
Blogger Ranty said...

I completely agree. And raw milk is delicious.

11:20 PM  
Blogger Kevin Sawyer said...

Cool. I'll assume we agree on food trucks as well.

Are there any good NoMi farmers markets? If so, please advise.

11:25 PM  
Blogger P. Brokken said...

I did give KARE 11 many scientific facts and logical arguments but these were not included in the piece. For example, that spinach, hot peppers and peanut butter are still sold despite being the causes of disease outbreaks (and now sprouts, not to mention deaths from tylenol).

7:42 AM  

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