Those who feel strongly about the benefits of raw milk are willing to go to great lengths to fight for access to the unpasteurized dairy product.
But contributing to the raw-milk debate, a new study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says unpasteurized milk is 150 times more likely to cause outbreaks of food-borne illness than the pasteurized stuff.
Outbreaks linked to raw milk also led to higher hospitalization rates than those linked to pasteurized dairy products, according to the CDC. Out of 121 outbreaks involving dairy (which resulted in more than 4,400 illnesses, nearly 240 hospitalizations and three deaths), the study found 60 per cent of the outbreaks were caused by raw milk and 39 per cent were caused by pasteurized milk, USA Today reports.
The 13-year review, one of the largest studies on the topic to date, also found that states where the sale of raw milk is allowed have twice as many outbreaks as those where it's illegal.
"When you consider that no more than 1 per cent of the milk consumed in the United States is raw, it's pretty startling to see that more of the outbreaks were caused by raw milk than pasteurized," Barbara Mahon, an author of the study and deputy director of enteric diseases at the CDC, told USA Today.
Pasteurization, a process in which the milk is heated, destroys pathogens such as listeria and salmonella. But raw-milk advocates say the process also renders the milk less healthy and nutritious. In Canada, raw-milk supporters and health authorities have often clashed over restrictions against selling unpasteurized milk.
Last year, an Ontario court found prominent Canadian raw-milk crusader Michael Schmidt guilty of 15 out of 19 charges related to distributing raw milk from his Durham, Ont., farm, provoking what he said was "a call to arms" in a fight to allow people to consume the food they choose.
In the United States, 30 states allow the sale of raw milk within state lines, but federal law prohibits it from being sold or traded across state borders, USA Today reports. The CDC says consumers can't tell whether raw milk is safe by looking at, smelling or tasting it.
"It is very clear that raw milk is a risk to human health," Dr. Mahon told USA Today. "I know that there are people who believe that it has health giving or curative properties, but I have never seen any studies that support that, and it's widely discredited in the public health community." The outbreaks that researchers reviewed affected young people under the age of 20 the most.
However, Sally Fallon, president of the nutrition activist organization Weston A. Price Foundation, which supports the sale of raw milk, told the newspaper that the CDC study does not break down illnesses due to fluid raw milk and soft cheeses, which she said are often made illegally.
Are restrictions on the sale of raw milk justified or overzealous?