In the mid-1800s, Louis Pasteur did some neat things in his science lab*. He pretty much discovered stereochemistry (I’m a chemist, just trust me that this is probably important). He developed the rabies vaccine. Most important to your every day life that you probably don’t even think about is a technique named after him, pasteurization. This is the process by which a food or beverage is heated to a high temperature for a few seconds to kill most contamination. One food that this is most commonly associated with is milk, as it’s a biological product that’s prone to spawning some rather nasty microbes. Before pasteurization, milk had a shelf life of a day or two. Between pasteurization and regular access to refrigeration, the shelf life of milk has expanded to whenever someone in the house bravely smells it and makes that face.
Hint: sniff test best performed before dirtying a glass.
Enter the natural food movement. Because inevitably, someone will look at a lifesaving technology and think, “meh.”
In recent years, the idea circulated that pasteurization makes milk less healthy for you. It’s been claimed that it kills important parts of the milk such as enzymes and vitamins. According to natural medicine crank Dr. Mercola, it even changes the shape of the protein in milk so that it’s no longer digestible. Rather than backing this up with scientific studies, this is stated with certainty by linking to the website of a dentist from a hundred years ago (hint: this is shitty science). Mercola says in this article, and I quote, “Contrary to the reports that say raw milk can make you sick, it is safe to drink.” If you look around the web, you’ll find many people in the alternative and natural health world (a suspiciously high number of mommy bloggers and chiropractors) who promote this idea that raw milk is safe and possibly even better for you than pasteurized milk.
It was recently in the news that Jordan and Stephanie Schiding saw their children suffer severe consequences from a raw milk E. coli outbreak. They thought they were giving their children “every health advantage” after reading about the alleged advantages of raw milk online. It’s sad that it takes watching your child land in the ICU with kidney failure to believe the CDC over a mommy blogger.
Fortunately, both of the Schiding’s young children survived, but it wasn’t without struggle. A week of dialysis, a central line staph infection, and hemolytic uremic syndrome? Short of death, they endured the worst case scenario from an E.coli infection. It had to have been a terrifying ordeal for the family, and I hope the children are comfortable and suffer no long term health effects. Fortunately, compared to some alternative health proponents who double down even after their children have died due to unproven ‘natural’ health ideas, the Schidings have stated their family will not be drinking raw milk again.
Was this just a fluke? Statistically, if you drink raw milk, maybe you’ll be fine. A lot of risky behavior doesn’t necessarily land you in the hospital the first time. But the safety record compared to pasteurized milk is a shitshow. Pasteurization wasn’t a 19th century plot by the French to undermine the health of 21st century Americans. We use it because it works. The likelihood of getting ill from raw milk rises exponentially compared to pasteurized milk. Per the CDC:
From 1993 through 2006, 121 outbreaks were linked to dairy products identified as pasteurized or unpasteurized (raw). These outbreaks resulted in 4,413 illnesses, 239 hospitalizations, and 3 deaths.
73 outbreaks (46 from fluid milk and 27 from cheese) were linked to raw milk, and 48 outbreaks (10 from fluid milk and 38 from cheese) were linked to pasteurized milk.
Probably no more than 1% of the milk consumed in the United States is raw, yet more outbreaks were linked to raw milk than by pasteurized milk.
If you consider the number of outbreaks associated with raw milk in light of the very small amount of milk that is consumed raw, the risk of outbreaks linked to raw milk is at least 150 times greater than the risk of outbreaks linked to pasteurized milk.
If you get rid of the raw milk in the food supply- again, about 1% of the dairy in the US- you reduce the incidence of food borne illnesses from milk by over half.
It’s the same story over and over again with the alternative health movement. We progress with a new technology to improve our lives and make the environment we interact with a little bit safer. Eventually, when people forget what life was like before the summer time air was a source of a paralytic virus, the new technology starts being demonized.
Vaccines made us safe from diseases. As those diseases faded because of the vaccines, we forgot just how dangerous those diseases were, and vaccines were to be feared because… Jenny McCarthy or something? We made our food supply more secure and famine proof with hybrids, GMOs, and safer classes of pesticides after untold millions suffered from malnutrition over the course of human history. This was countered by people who are sure watching a documentary made them farming experts and we just need to plant crops in our minuscule Los Angeles apartments to feed the planet. And when we came up with techniques to make our food itself safer, it’s a government plot against your stupid fucking hipster milk.
Nature does not give a damn if you live or die. E. coli, in particular, would prefer you dead. Ditto polio, asteroids, salmonella, zika, necrotizing faciitis, and more things than I care to list to demonstrate this point that nature is goddamn dangerous. Nature is pretty, it should be taken care of, but it’ll also fuck up your life if you don’t understand it. We invented pasteurization for a reason. I’m sure there are excuses from natural health proponents. People were buying from “bad” dairies. The milk sat too long. They got sick from something else (ignoring the cluster of people who got sick from the same teet). But if you consume dairy, please don’t fall for the raw milk hype.
I’m glad that the Shidings changed their minds, but it wasn’t without more pain than their children deserved to suffer for the insidious misinformation that’s infected the internet. Learn from them. Learn from centuries of evidence. But don’t learn this lesson the hard way.