Controversy in social media over “raw milk is a low-risk food” assessment

by Nadine Ijaz

Researcher Nadine Ijaz

It is healthy that we are seeing some vigorous conversation about raw milk safety this week.  In an earlier post, I responded to some inaccurate depictions of my work on this front.  The discussion continues across social media, with the twitterverse circulating a position paper to reproduce some of the raw milk science myths which I debunked in my recent presentation to the BC Centre for Disease Control here in Canada.  That position paper gives some historical context for pasteurization, cites some accurate evidence, and describes one family’s story of raw milk induced illness; it also makes some important errors. While one is entitled to express an opinion online, it is important to differentiate what is scientific evidence.

Of course it is terribly unfortunate that a beautiful young child would and did become severely ill from consuming unpasteurized milk contaminated with E. coli 0157 as the paper’s author reports; and I feel certain that raw milk producers and consumers would agree that it is regrettable.  One would certainly wish Ms. McGonigle-Martin, her son Chris, and their entire family well; and wish to do the utmost to prevent any such future occurrence. These stories are absolutely worth telling, to honour the family’s experience.

Regardless, as single case reports, such undeniably tragic accounts cannot be considered a good example of scientific evidence to back up laws prohibiting raw milk access.  In fact, raw milk consumers get frequently criticized for sharing ‘anecdotal’ stories as to how they may have personally benefited from consuming raw milk.  Please:  let us use consistent, high-quality standards of evidence to discuss these issues in a more balanced way.

On the basis of my extensive review of the peer-reviewed literature, I disagree with the post writer’s premise that raw milk is a high-risk food in industrialized nations today.  However, I do agree that ‘people need to be properly informed’; which is why we urgently need a more scientific approach to raw milk risk assessment on the continent.

An important, evidenced approach to preventing foodborne illness is to use scientifically-grounded risk mitigation practices.  Indeed, peer-reviewed scientists have proposed unpasteurized milk testing as an important 21st century mitigator of such a rare event as the McGonigle-Martin family regrettably experienced.  Keeping raw milk in the underground, as it is universally here in Canada, can make it difficult (if not personally dangerous, given the very real threat of a jail sentence) for raw milk farmers to seek out appropriate regular milk pathogen testing.  Perhaps a similar case of children becoming severely ill in BC (Canada) twelve years ago from E. coli 0157 in raw goat milk might have been prevented, had such safeguards been in place.

Watch Nadine’s presentation to the BC Centre for Disease Control here.

15 Comments

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15 responses to “Controversy in social media over “raw milk is a low-risk food” assessment

  1. Mary McGonigle-Martin

    Thank you Nadine for your kind words. My son is not alone in his experience. Since 2005, there have been 24 children under the age of 18 who have developed HUS after drinking raw milk contaminated with E.coli 0157:H7. The latest victim is 2 year old Kylee. She is in complete renal failure and now needs a kidney transplant. Her mom hopes to be the donor match.

    • charles jasunas

      Virgin coconut oil is anti germ and anti virus. Maybe Kylee should try it. I would if she was my daughter.

    • AaronH

      A scientific approach would be to find the cause of these cases of contamination in order to better establish the specific conditions that lead to contamination of raw milk. Your son is a victim of the establishment implementing a blanket ban on raw milk; thereby, increasing risk factors associated with its consumption and reducing transparency in its processing and distribution. Drinking raw milk from one farmer is not likely to carry the same risks as drinking raw milk from another farmer, simply because procedures for milking, handling, and distribution of raw milk has not been standardized under carefully controlled conditions and research.

  2. charles jasunas

    It isn’t right or wrong , thinking makes it so.

  3. Carol

    My Heart goes out to the effected families but we must put this all in prospective. Many people have been effected by contamination from vegetables, fruit , meat etc. Does that mean we should stop eating these life giving foods, of course not.People are killed in car accidents, does that mean we should not drive cars? Of course not. Why is it there is more of an out cry if someone becomes ill or dies from food then from a car accident?
    I grew up on a farm,operated a farm, part of which was dairy. We lived close to town so there was always kids biking to our place. They drank the milk, ate the butter along with my own 4 children. We thought nothing of it and no one got sick. Today we are retired, still drink unpasteurized milk, live in a community that many families drink milk from their dairy cows or from their one cow and in all the years I have NEVER heard of anyone getting sick. However we have never gotten sick from our vegetables or meat either. I ask why is that? I am sure everyone will have an answer but I am certain the answer will be multifaceted.

    • kurt

      Hi Carol. I love your answer, and as a small family farmer myself, we live the same way, as has many of my Aunts & Uncles & Grandparents did before us. No one has ever been sick from home grow here either and I’d like to add my 2 cents here. I believe it’s because we pay attention to detail on our small family operations. If a cow is sick ,we know it, we don’t irrigate with dirty water, if something in the garden is half rotten we don’t pick it. Small production so we don’t use pesticides, so there’s no risk of screwing that up . We milk by hand so if something is wrong there we see it, if there is something that falls into the milk we see that too🙂
      We hear of food recalls all the time, they come from mass producing large processors, huge companies with pressure on employees for production targets, hundreds of employees from all walks of life, is everyone at work happy today or is someone angry and going to quit, did they throw a dead rat in the mix vat on the way out, who knows. Is everyone properly trained & supervised , can they read English or did they just mix a bag of cleaning agent in the sausage rather than the binder, do they care or are they afraid to say ?, this is hypothetical, but it’s why I grow my own food. I don’t trust the great big machine anymore to feed me safely.
      Excerpt copied from :http://dba-oracle.blogspot.ca/2009/02/what-is-amount-of-foreign-objects.html.
      It may make you sick to know that the FDA allows up to 30 insert parts or vermin hairs for each 100 grams of peanut butter! Yum!
      The FDA publishes a Food Defect Action Level list. Here is a sample of the amount of gross things that are allowed into our food:

      NOODLE PRODUCTS – Insect filth: Average of 225 insect fragments or more per 225 grams in 6 or more subsamples. Rodent filth: Average of 4.5 rodent hairs or more per 225 grams in 6 or more subsamples

      CHOCOLATE – Insect filth: Average is 60 or more insect fragments per 100 grams when 6 100-gram subsamples are examined OR any 1 subsample contains 90 or more insect fragments. Rodent filth: Average is 1 or more rodent hairs per 100 grams in 6 100-gram subsamples examined.

      CANNED CITRUS FRUITS – Insects and insect eggs: 5 or more Drosophila and other fly eggs per 250 ml or 1 or more maggots per 250 ml.

      FLOUR – Insect filth: Average of 75 or more insect fragments per 50 grams. Rodent filth: Average of 1 or more rodent hairs per 50 grams
      That’s why I grow & prepare my own thanks.

      • charles jasunas

        Maybe they should add these things to the ingredients list. Then people will start to change their eating habits for sure.

    • Tamara

      It also occurs to me t ask if maybe the source of raw milk these kids got was an isolated case? If one farmer or farm is irresponsible when working with raw milk, that does not mean other farms are irresponsible. Shouldn’t we make accountable those who are irresponsible, rather than shutting down every farmer? Why punish every farmer for the irresponsibility of a few? You don’t punish people who are innocent of a crime or negligence.

      And as an adult, I should be able to decide what I eat, drink and smoke. And parents should have the right to decide things for their children, not other people outside the immediate family!

      I know they have vending machines in France and other European countries which sell raw milk AND self sanitize. They are growing in popularity. Apparently there ARE ways of handling and selling raw milk safely.

  4. Theresa Weldon

    In 14 years, there was an average of 315 illnesses a year from all dairy products for which the pasteurization status was known. Of those, there was an average of 112 illnesses each year attributed to all raw dairy products and 203 associated with pasteurized dairy products.

    In comparison, there are almost 24,000 foodborne illnesses reported each year on average. Whether pasteurized or not, dairy products are simply not a high risk product.

  5. Theresa Weldon

    Also, from the anti raw milk site, Real Raw Milk Facts, more people have died from pastuerized milk illness than raw milk illness (8 to 2).
    http://www.realrawmilkfacts.com/raw-milk-news/story/updated-raw-milk-outbreak-tables/

  6. BC Food Security

    Since 2005 , 500 million people drank raw milk and nothing negative occurred. Do we deny the rights of the 500 million people ? Or do we do the professional thing and look at each situation on a ‘case by case” and identify what was avoidable risk and what was unavoidable risk ? We all know that liability is a multi billion dollar business in the United States . So risk means very different things in the eyes of a consumer, a government official , a dairy marketing board or corporation , a scientist a lawyer or an insurance adjuster . Huge ,unreasonable and out of balance liability requirements squelch innovation in a society . Everybody loses . Rather the money should be spent on teaching the farmer best organic farm safety and livestock management practices and making it as easy as possible for the farmer to frequently test his or her animals . The other problem with this inordinate fear of living foods is that it can and is being manipulated by processed and chemical food and drug companies for their own financial gain . Fear sells and some make a pretty penny out of it. Until we deal with all facets of this problem honestly and openly, which goes way beyond the raw milk safety issue, we will always be wanting in the final outcome . Kudos to Nadine for initiating the dialog process here but there is a lot more to this topic than meets the eye. .

  7. Karen M

    Do the figures that are being thrown around here reflect the actual percentages? I realize it’s probably difficult to determine how many dairy consumers are strictly raw versus pasteurized or even a combo of both (that would be me), but, can we get those kinds of figures? If 20% of the population (for example) is on raw but they account for 40% of all dairy related illness/death, then, I’d say there’s a problem. I don’t believe that would be the case, but let’s try to see #’s that truly reflect what’s going on.

  8. The website referencing Nadine Ijaz’s analysis seems to have taken down “Raw Milk, Myths and Evidence”. Does anyone know why its been pulled? Or is the whole site down for maintenance?

  9. charles jasunas

    Read Ron Schmid’s book ”The untold story of Milk” it will rattle your cage. It made me mad as hell.

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