Raw milk movement puts children needlessly at risk

Anti-vaccination folks, meet your kindred spirits in turning back the hands of time: the raw milkers – people who have the misguided notion that unpasteurized milk is somehow better for them.

Like parents who refuse to allow their children to receive potentially lifesaving vaccines, raw milkers probably don’t remember a time that is all too vivid to many of our elderly: when children were crippled by polio, killed by diseases that now are rare or sickened by unpasteurized milk.

There’s a reason the Centers for Disease Control strongly recommends against drinking raw milk or eating products made with it: It can be tainted with bacteria like E. coli and listeria, viruses or parasites that can sicken or kill you. Indeed, the CDC reports that the growing raw milk movement has resulted, predictably, in more cases of foodborne illnesses associated with tainted milk.

From 1998 through 2011, 148 outbreaks related to consumption of raw milk or raw milk products were reported, resulting in 2,384 illnesses and two deaths. Many more cases are believed to be unreported. Most at risk are infants, young children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems, but even healthy people of any age can be sickened or killed by tainted raw milk.

Raw milk is currently legal in at least 27 states, including Washington. In many states where it is banned, black market sales or “cow-share” programs exist to skirt the laws.

Many producers of raw milk go to great lengths to keep their animals clean. While that reduces the risk of contamination, it doesn’t take much fecal matter in milk to cause illness.

Pasteurization heats milk just enough to kill disease-causing germs, the CDC says, while not neutralizing milk’s nutrients. Consumers interested in raw milk’s probiotic properties would be safer eating live-culture yogurt rather than eschewing pasteurization. The CDC says there are no added health benefits from drinking raw milk.

Pasteurization became widespread in the United States by 1950, and public health providers consider it one of the most effective food safety innovations ever made. That’s why the growing market for raw milk – and agitation for relaxing laws in states that currently ban it – is so baffling.

It reflects the same kind of disturbing anti-science thinking at work among those who choose to expose their children and other vulnerable people to disease by shunning vaccinations.

Getting “back to the earth” and away from overprocessed foods can have many benefits for consumers – but not when it needlessly exposes them to easily avoided illnesses.