Raw Milk: Panacea or Poison? Only eight states allow raw milk to be sold in stores for human consumption, but that hasn't stopped people across the country from drinking it. Fans argue that pasteurization kills good bacteria as well as bad, but experts are divided.
NPR logo

Raw Milk: Panacea or Poison?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/91843992/91868524" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Raw Milk: Panacea or Poison?

Raw Milk: Panacea or Poison?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/91843992/91868524" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


OK. Listen up, folks. There is a pretty intense public policy debate brewing. Perhaps you've heard about it. A lot of people want access to a certain substance, but the laws make it difficult or impossible to get it in many places. These people say the stuff is good for them, but the U.S. government says it's dangerous, so, in many places, people have set up a black market delivery system to get their hands on the goods. They favor full legalization, but some suppliers are being raided and arrested. As you probably guessed, we are talking about milk, raw unpasteurized milk. BPP Producer Dan Pashman has been looking into this issue. He and Winn Rosenfeld have a video report up on our website today and Jan - I just decided to call you...

DAN PASHMAN: That's cool. I'm flexible. Whatever you...

MARTIN: Dan joins us now in the studio.


MARTIN: Hey, Dan.

PASHMAN: How are you?

MARTIN: We're doing well. So let's talk a little bit about, first of all, why do people want raw milk? I hear that and I kind of think that sounds gross. Why do people want this?

PASHMAN: Well, the idea is, you know, we've been pasteurizing milk for many decades, and the idea of pasteurization is that you heat the milk in order to kill potentially dangerous pathogens that could be inside the milk. But proponents of raw milk, they believe when you're doing that - when you're killing the potentially bad stuff - you're also killing the good stuff that can provide a wide range of health benefits.

The main ones are that they say it helps your immune system to be exposed to these different kinds of bacteria. They argue that people who are lactose intolerant can drink raw milk, whereas they may not be able to drink pasteurized milk. And there's a whole other list that it gives you better energy, better mental health, and the list goes and on and on from there.


X-ray vision. Visibility.

PASHMAN: That's right, yet to proven.

MARTIN: So how do you procure this stuff? I mean, you said in the intro it's kind of regulated. It's hard to get your hands on.

PASHMAN: It is. It really depends on what state you live in. The laws vary widely. There are eight states where you can actually buy raw milk in the store. You can just go to the store and buy raw milk, although it has to be marked clearly. There are a bunch of other states where you can only buy raw milk at the farm where the cows are being milked. It can't be taken offsite and sold elsewhere. Then there's even a couple of states, like Florida, where it can only be sold as pet food, but a lot of people just buy it marked as pet food and then they go home and drink it themselves.

PESCA: Do they have to like go in and bark at the clerk selling it to you?

PASHMAN: Yeah, you have to prove that you have a dog.


PASHMAN: No, you don't.

PESCA: Or are a dog.

PASHMAN: And then even in a few other states where it's technically illegal, they still don't stop people from drinking the milk raw from their own cows, if they own the cows. And so farmers have taken to selling cow shares, so if you actually buy a share of a cow, you are ostensibly an owner of the cow and then you can go to that farm and pick up your, quote, unquote, "your" milk.

MARTIN: Wow. So, I mean, people are going to such lengths because of the benefits that you mentioned, supposedly boosting your immune system. It helps if you're lactose intolerant. Is there any science to back up those claims?

PASHMAN: Well, there's some.

MARTIN: I mean, you can find science to back up anything, I suppose.

PASHMAN: Right. There's been a few recent interesting studies done. One was done in Switzerland. They studied 15,000 European kids and they found that kids who drank raw milk had lower incidents of asthma and allergies, which is pretty interesting. It's especially interesting that the earlier they drinking the raw milk, the better the benefits - the more the benefits that they saw were.

There was also a study done that was funded by the Weston A. Price Foundation, which is an activist group in favor of raw milk, but they did it an independent study which suggested that people who are lactose intolerant are more likely to be able to drink raw milk. The problem with these studies is that they don't isolate raw milk as the determining factor.

MARTIN: Yeah, because I imagine it's a self-selecting group that's drinking this stuff. They're probably eating really healthy anyway.

PASHMAN: Right. They also eat - there's differences in what they eat. There are differences in where they live. There are a variety of differences, so it's very difficult for scientists to point to raw milk as the deciding factor that has brought these health benefits.

PESCA: Like that Swiss study. It's probably the raw milk kids were the macrobiotic food kids and the eat-your-vegetables kids, and they're not just eating, you know, Fritos all day.

PASHMAN: Right, and they were also often times kids who grew up on farms, so they were exposed to bacteria by being around animals.

PESCA: Right.

PASHMAN: Which is another way you can build your immune system, besides for just drinking raw milk.

MARTIN: So let's talk about the other side of this. The government says this stuff is bad for us, right? Explain. What are their fears?

PASHMAN: They do. The Food and Drug Administration actually declined to be interviewed for our story, but they have a PowerPoint presentation on their website that leaves no questions about where they stand. They call raw milk inherently dangerous.


PASHMAN: Well, because there have been outbreaks. There have been people who have gotten sick from drinking raw milk - things like salmonella, brucellosis, listeria. These things can be found in raw milk, and milk that hasn't been pasteurized, they say, is more likely to make you sick. And they say that it's dangerous, and so they favored not allowing it at all. So it's pretty much polar opposites, in terms of that. The FDA has this PowerPoint presentation. There's actually a dueling PowerPoint-presentation war on the Internet. The Weston A. Price Foundation, they have a rebuttal, slide-by-slide rebuttal to PowerPoint on their website. We've got links to all of this up on our web.

PESCA: Slide-by-slide throw down.

PASHMAN: That's right.

MARTIN: So there are some claims that there's food poisoning that can be connected to raw milk. What do raw milk drinkers want to happen? Are they satisfied with having to go to these extremes to get the milk, or are they urging a more open marketplace for this?

PASHMAN: Well, they, you know - it varies a bit. It should be said that very few of them favor an end to pasteurization. They just want to be able to make the choice for themselves. Now, some of them feel that raw milk should just be available in the stores, like it is in those eight states. You should just be able to go and buy it. A lot of the other ones actually like the system, the middle ground sort of approach, which is like we have here in New York state, which is that system where it can only be sold at the farm and you need a special permit.

And that allows consumers to go to the farms, see where the raw milk is being made, and a lot of them argue that it comes down to the difference between big farms and small farms, and that the FDA's approach is short of an old-school, big milk industry approach of well, this needs to be regulated because we can't keep tabs on all these things. And they say well, on a small enough farm, if you have a farmer that really takes care of his or her milk, they you can actually ensure that raw milk will be safe.

MARTIN: And you and Winn visited one of these really small farms.

PASHMAN: We did. We went up to Freedom Hill Farm in Otisville, New York. It's about 90 miles northwest of here. We spoke to Rick and Julie Vreeland who started selling milk, basically, as a hobby, and ended up getting so many demands for raw milk, Rick said it was like they said a sign outside free drugs for addicts.

MARTIN: That's crazy.

PASHMAN: Last summer, they started selling raw milk. They sold 13 gallons in the first month. This past month they sold more than 1,000 gallons.


PASHMAN: And Rick is perfectly qualified to talk about big farm versus small farm because used to run a farm with 2,000 cows. And he flat out said he didn't drink the milk raw from that old farm because he wasn't the one milking the cows. The cows are getting milked at two in the morning while he's sleeping, so an honest mistake could be made and something could get into the milk and it could be a very dangerous honest mistake.

MARTIN: Well, there's a lot of trust that's involved in this process to the people who are taking this unpasteurized milk from these farmers. I mean, they're just trusting them that they're handling it well.

PASHMAN: They are, but they're also taking a lot of initiative on their own to go to the farm, and that's one of the things that the consumers at this farm in New York state that we talked to said we like that we can come here. We know Rick and Julie. We know the people. We can look at the cows. We can watch them milk the cows, and so we can see for ourselves that the milk is being handled properly.

PESCA: Is it your impression that even the most radical, pro-raw-milk people don't say, oh, there's nothing to worry about, just put it on the shelves next to the regular milk? Or are even people who are the biggest pro-raw-milk people, do they say things, like, that you still have to be careful? You still have to know where it's coming from. Let's be cautious about this.

PASHMAN: I'm sure you could find a couple on the far end, but in general, they do favor standards, specifically for raw milk, because one of the arguments that they make is that they believe that at bigger factory farms, basically, the farmers take pasteurization for granted and just assume they can let whatever they want get into the milk. And they can have low standards because pasteurization will take care of it after the fact.

MARTIN: Two more questions. First, did you ever taste this stuff?

PASHMAN: I did, and I must say, it was delicious.

MARTIN: Seriously?

PASHMAN: It was. It was creamier than any other milk, creamier and richer than any other milk. And it backs up the idea that, I mean, pasteurization has been fine-tuned. The process has been to find a balance between safety and flavor. You don't want to sterilize the milk because then it loses its flavor, and there was a whole lot of flavor in the raw milk.

MARTIN: I can't - milk flavor. I don't know if I want more milkiness (ph) in my - anyway, the last question.

PESCA: You're just afraid of the milkiness. You don't know what milkiness can mean to you.

MARTIN: I guess not. There was so much science, really interesting stuff, that you learned out of this. Tell us about some of the things that surprised you.

PASHMAN: Yeah, there were a couple of things that didn't fit into the video, but I found super interesting. One is that we're learning more and more that bacteria plays a more integral role in human life and the human immune system than we previously knew.

MARTIN: Because we think bacteria, we think bad.

PASHMAN: Right. You see those commercials for antibacterial soaps and you see these cartoons of...

MARTIN: They're like creatures, monsters!


PESCA: I love how you get the cavity creeps from Crest commercials, a little bit.

PASHMAN: Right, and the truth is that a lot of - while probably more bacteria are bad than good, there are a lot of good bacteria out there. And one of the most interesting things that I learned is about this stuff called oligosaccharides. It's a sugar that's in human breast milk, and the baby gets it from the mother, but the baby cannot digest oligosaccharides. So you would say, why after millions of years of evolution is the mother still producing this?


PASHMAN: Well, that's because oligosaccharides are essentially bacteria food for good bacteria. They are a food that goes into the baby and creates a breeding ground for good bacteria to help the baby ward off bad bacteria.

MARTIN: I never knew that.

PASHMAN: And one of the scientists I spoke to, Bruce German, he said that down the road we're going to industrialize good bacteria, and that instead of having antibacterial sprays for your countertops, you're going to have sprays for good bacteria. And you're going to spread good bacteria on your countertops to get rid of the bad bacteria.

MARTIN: Totally fascinating. It's a great video report. Go check it out online at npr.org/bryantpark. Thank you, Dan Pashman.

PASHMAN: My pleasure. Thanks, guys.

MARTIN: Fascinating stuff. Participate in the online discussion, as well.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.