At the Wisconsin Farm Bureau convention last month, delegates from America’s Dairyland, the largest general farm organization, voted to support legalizing raw milk sales by farmers.
But public health authorities and dairy researchers continue to urge caution. They warn that consuming raw milk is still too risky.
John Lucey is director of the Dairy Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He recently joined Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Morning Show” to answer questions about the safety of raw milk. He stressed the need to protect children.
“They’re the ones who often drink it for breakfast as well. They’re more sensitive because their immune systems aren’t as highly developed,” Lucey said. “That’s what bothers me and keeps me up at night.”
Citing three studies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says more outbreaks of foodborne illness linked to raw milk occur in states where its sale is legal. The sale of raw milk is mostly illegal in Wisconsin under state law.
On “The Morning Show,” Lucey discussed Wisconsin’s laws for selling raw milk, the pasteurization process, and the taste of raw milk.
The following has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Kate Archer Kent: What separates raw milk from the milk someone buys at the store?
John Lucey: The main (difference) between pasteurized milk and raw milk is the heat treatment given to pasteurized milk. This is a legal requirement for a specific temperature and time. The most common is about 161 degrees for 15 seconds. There are a few other time (and) temperature combinations for things like cream and other products.
That heat treatment was selected over several years of study in the last century (when) they were looking for the most heat-resistant human pathogen that could be found in milk.
Now, pasteurization, I should point out, does not kill all the bacteria (in) milk. The focus of pasteurization is only on pathogens, things that can make us sick.
KAK: How does raw milk taste compared to pasteurized milk?
JL: If we had a blind test here and had a lot of people testing raw and pasteurized milk, we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between (them). I don’t think there is any way for us to detect the fact that a heat treatment (occurred).
Now if we were dealing with something like boiled milk and if we ever made boiled milk to drink before bed they would notice that because it’s a much more aggressive heat treatment. But pasteurization has a relatively lower temperature in a shorter time. That’s not enough to cause a taste difference to the public.
KAK: The sale or distribution of raw milk is illegal in Wisconsin. But there are exceptions for the incidental sale of raw milk directly to consumers on a farm. How do consumers know if a given farm sells raw milk?
JL: The regulatory environment across the US is diverse and confusing. Some states ban it entirely. Some have incidental sales. Some allow it relatively freely. Some allow online sales. Therefore, it is quite confusing for the public to figure out what they should do, where they can do it, and whether it is legal or not.
KAK: We heard from a listener in Viroqua who was curious about bovine brucellosis. What can you tell us about it?
JL: Historically, a large proportion of food-related illnesses contracted by humans came from drinking cow’s milk or from close contact with cows or cattle. Brucellosis (and) tuberculosis were part of that.
We have done a great job here on the livestock side trying to eliminate some diseases or reduce their incidence. But there are still risks of contracting them from eating raw milk. We are fortunate that when we look at pasteurization, its goal is to destroy the more heat-stable pathogen that is present in milk. So we’re always looking at that and saying what’s another potential that could be a risk to us and let’s make sure that heat treatment eliminates it.
Abroad, that is still a factor in some countries, because cattle are endemic in many parts of the world for both brucellosis and tuberculosis.
KAK: When you look at the CDC data, are there more outbreaks related to raw dairy in states where it’s legal to sell it?
JL: Yes, that is correct. The funny thing is also, if you look at the last 20 years and the studies that have been done, even in the states where raw milk was illegal, there are outbreaks related to raw milk consumption. So not everyone follows the rules, even in the states where it’s illegal.
But yeah, you’re right. That’s what worries me when we think about expanding access to raw milk, which will increase the (number) of outbreaks, the number of hospitalizations, and unfortunately also the likelihood of multiple deaths.
This article is republished with permission from Wisconsin Public Radio