Raw milk is highly controversial in the U.S., but has plenty of die-hard supporters. They might be disappointed to learn of new stats from the CDC, which found that 96 percent of all illnesses caused by dairy products were traced back to the consumption of unpasteurized cheese and milk. This March, two people even died after eating raw milk cheese from Vulto Creamery in New York.
While the highest percentage of foodborne illnesses is caused by leafy greens (because of course, nothing in this world can just be straight-up good for us), dairy is a close second, causing 14 percent of food-related sickness. It’s also the leading cause of hospitalizations related to food, and sadly, 10 percent of all food-related deaths are caused by dairy consumption.
Pasteurization is the process by which a food is made safe to eat by killing pathogenic bacteria that can cause serious diseases (including polio, dysentery and many more). To pasteurize milk, it’s usually heated up to 161.6 degrees F for 15 seconds — a flash of high heat that kills the stuff that can make us sick.
Even as the CDC and FDA crack down on unpasteurized dairy because of its many health risks (listeria, E. coli, salmonella and campylobacter), raw milk somehow continues to grow in popularity. Some people drink unpasteurized milk for its alleged health benefits, claiming that raw, unpasteurized milk is easier to digest, helps protect against allergies and just tastes better and more natural than the homogenized, pasteurized milk we get at the store that’s produced en masse at dairy farms.
And raw milk cheeses are supposedly better tasting too. In France, raw milk cheeses are widely enjoyed (hence its famously stinky fromage) in spite of French government officials warning against the health risks, which are especially high for pregnant women, babies and the elderly.
Perhaps most convincing for raw dairy devotees, unpasteurized dairy products are usually produced by small, independent family farms. Advocates say that banning raw dairy is a threat to these small businesses, while others feel that if people want to consume raw dairy even after hearing about its potential health hazards, they should be able to. Hey, if 18-year-olds can buy cigarettes, why not just put an age limit on the purchase of unpasteurized dairy too? Soft-ripened raw milk cheese — it’s what the cool kids are into.
Currently, only 3.2 percent of people in the US drink raw milk and only 1.6 percent eat raw cheese, but many regulations on the sale of unpasteurized dairy are being revoked by lawmakers facing consumer pressure. Currently, only 20 states bar the sale of raw dairy, down from 29 in 2004.
If that number keeps shrinking, the FDA may be faced with ever-growing numbers of illnesses and deaths caused by unpasteurized dairy. In the meantime, I’ll just be over here nervously gnawing away at a block of hyper-pasteurized Velveeta.