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Consumer Freedom and the Risks of Raw Milk

Earlier today, Nicole Ciandella linked to an essay by the John Locke Foundation's Fergus Hodgson, titled "The Absurdity of Raw Milk Prohibition." It's a good piece, worth reading. But Hodgson makes a couple of errors worth pointing out, so I thought I'd add my two cents.

Hodgson begins well enough:

"Picture a peaceful, Amish farmer, selling one of nature’s super foods — fresh, raw milk. Eager customers came from afar, even across state lines, to savor the taste and access a nutritious product. Who could oppose such harmonious commerce on Rainbow Acres Farm? Government officials and their enforcers, that’s who.

This Pennsylvania farmer has been the subject of a yearlong sting operation, which included stealth purchases and a 5 a.m. surprise inspection. In February, a federal judge imposed a permanent injunction that prohibited him from selling his milk across state lines."

So far, so good. But then Hodgson makes an error of over-simplification: "To defend this violation of freedom of choice, proponents claim to be protecting others from the purported dangers of raw milk. But this claim is laughable, since evidence to the contrary has been mounting for decades."

As I've written on occasion, the health risks associated with raw milk consumption are generally quite low, at least for adults with a healthy immune system. But they're not zero. After all, pasteurization was seen as a remarkable scientific breakthrough and public health miracle for a reason: raw milk can harbor any number of nasty bacteria -- including S. typhimurium, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, E. coli O157:H7, Listeria, Campylobacter, and Brucella -- which historically have had a nasty tendency to result in illness and, occasionally, death.

Admittedly, compared with lots of other, far larger risks that we humans live with on a daily basis, you'd certainly think that public health officials would have more pressing issues to deal with. But here's where Hodgson lets his enthusiasm get the better of him. He writes: "[A] recent federal report (PDF) from the Centers for Disease Control did not find a single death from the product in a 14-year research period, while three individuals died on account of pasteurized milk. ... That’s because raw milk is a safe product."

The problem is, the CDC report Hodgson links to flatly contradicts his claims. "We found 121 outbreaks for which the product’s pasteurization status was known; among these, 73 (60%) involved nonpasteurized products and resulted in 1,571 cases, 202 hospitalizations, and 2 deaths." Now, it's important to note that all of the deaths attributed to foodborne disease outbreaks associated with dairy products involved cheeses, not fluid milk. But, according to the report, two of the deaths were caused by unpasteurized products and only one by a pasteurized product. (My best guess is that Hodgson mis-read the table at the bottom of page 387 to arrive at his conclusion that 3 deaths were caused by pasteurized products.)

Hodgson's bigger point, that the risks associated with unpasteurized milk are tiny and we shouldn't stand idly by while the government tramples our rights in order to protect us from ourselves, is of course true -- which is why I still recommend the article. But I have very little sympathy for people who wish to perpetuate the myth that raw milk is perfectly safe and/or somehow better for us than pasteurized milk.

Now, lest I be misunderstood, let me be clear:  I do believe that consenting adults should be free to sell, buy, and/or consume raw milk. But the outrage here is not that our government is cracking down on a perfectly benign activity; it's that our fellow citizens have empowered government to interfere with our ability to make our own choices when they raise any risk at all. The crackdown on raw milk is merely one symptom of a much larger problem.