PULSE: In the News

Raw Milk: Food Safety and the FDA

By: Dr. David Acheson

The issue of consuming raw milk has become one of extreme polar views. The raw milk advocates extol the virtues of raw milk and are typically convinced that any risk associated with the consumption of raw milk is far outweighed by the benefits. On the reverse side, there are many who feel that those drinking raw milk are doing it without full recognition of the dangers or the seriousness of the risks they are taking.

This debate has reached the point where the opposing sides are irrevocably dug in and equally unmovable in their convictions. Neither side will back down, and neither side is willing to look for compromise. While one has to respect the passion and the conviction of the opposing forces one also has to recognize that this situation has all the makings of continued anguish and wasted energy. The FDA has made their position very clear- that the movement of raw milk in interstate commerce is illegal and the Agency has taken action when such transgressions have come to light.

As a public health professional I certainly appreciate the dangers of exposure to the microbial pathogens that may be found in raw milk. I personally do not drink raw milk and nor do I intend to. However I also realize that there are many very motivated individuals with a great capacity to solve problems that are devoting energy to the fight of their particular conviction rather than looking for a public health oriented solution.

Let us accept that raw milk consumption is here to stay – legislating against it will drive it underground and thus magnify any dangers associated with consuming that commodity. Instead, I advocate devoting the energy that abounds in this argument to setting agreed standards for raw milk production. There is copious science to indicate how to minimize the likelihood of microbial contamination of milk (note I say minimize and not eliminate). Appropriate management of the farm, the dairy cattle, the procedures, the containers, the storage and the shelf life of the product can all be effective controls and should all be used in conjunction with each other. Dare I even suggest that FDA could actually be a knowledgeable contributor to this process?

States that allow the sale of raw milk need to set very high standards and most importantly enforce them. I believe many consumers of raw milk are aware of the dangers of raw milk consumption so they would likely welcome minimizing the risk through tight standards. Raw milk should be required to be labeled as such with appropriate warnings and to be required to be certified to those high standards before being allowed for sale to the public. The public should be educated about the need to only consume raw milk from operations that are following those very high standards.

The battle over raw milk will continue to result in a public health stale mate until the intellectual capital of those involved in the argument move to a different level and look for collaborative solutions not confrontational ones. Confrontation will never succeed in this argument, but collaboration could not only be constructive but actually make the product less of a public health hazard – which after all is my goal as a public health professional.