Not quite two weeks ago, a bill in a Louisiana State House Committee died. The bill had passed the Louisiana Senate, and had already caused some controversy. The bill? Legalizing the sales of raw milk. If passed, Louisiana would have been the fourteenth state to allow for the sale of raw milk in retail stores, along with 17 other states that already allow for the sale of raw milk on the farm where it was produced. Why is raw milk so problematic that states feel the need to ban it?
Raw milk essentially is milk that does not go through pasteurization, i.e., the process of briefly heating the milk, followed by an immediate cooling, in order to kill pathogens in raw milk. Pasteurization was a godsend during much of the twentieth century because many people were dying from raw milk. Conversely, modern refrigeration and stainless steel tanks have made raw milk safer than it historically was because dairy farms and production centers are nowhere near as unsanitary or unrefrigerated as they used to be. Even so, the main concern behind banning raw milk is a public health concern. How big and legitimate is the concern?
There are some, such as those at the Weston A. Price Foundation, who advocate for raw milk and its benefits (e.g., better taste, lack of additives, perceived health benefits via positive enzymes killed during pasteurization process). However, the general scientific consensus is that pasteurized milk is healthier for you. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is very much against the consumption of raw milk because of harmful bacteria that it contains. It even published a study showing the disease outbreaks related to non-pasteurized dairy products between 1993 and 2006 (Langer et. al, 2012). The scary part about the study is that based on the data, non-pasteurized products are about 150 times more likely to lead to dairy-related, food-borne illness than pasteurized products (CDC, 2012, p. 389). The not-so-scary part is that during the 1993-2006 period, 1,571 people became ill from unpasteurized dairy consumption, only one of which resulted in a death (CDC, 2012, p. 386-387). Considering that 3 percent of the population (8.95 million people) consumed raw milk during the end of the study period, I have to wonder about incidence rate. The CDC also released a 2015 study also showing that from 2007 to 2012, there were 979 illnesses, 73 hospitalizations, and 0 deaths related to unpasteurized milk. If legalized in all 50 states, I would imagine that the number of illnesses or deaths would increase, but I would also have to ask "by how much?" The study also points out (Figure 2, p. 388) that a majority of the states had legalized raw milk sales at the time, and enough of those states were states with large population sizes.
I don't even have to get into how pasteurization is an expensive process that acts as a barrier to entry in the dairy production industry, especially in an industry with a profit margin of 2.0 percent (IBISWorld [subscription required]). But if we are to even begin to consider, let alone implement, a ban on raw milk, the burden of proof is one proponents of the ban to show that legalizing raw milk would be such a risk to public health. If the previously cited CDC studies tells me anything, it is that the demand for raw milk, even in states where it's perfectly legal to buy it, is not that high. Not only has pasteurization become an industry standard, but most people are aware that pasteurized milk is better for one's health than raw milk. 30 out of 50 states allow for the sale of raw milk on some level, and many states have allowed for the sale of raw milk for enough years. What is even better is that when looking at CDC data, unpasteurized milk does not even come up on their list of leading causes of death, even when enough people have access to raw milk, thereby questioning the validity of the public health argument.
Aside from the lack of evidence of significant public health concerns, there is also the economic freedom to consider. Any food comes with risk of contamination. Every day we eat and drink, we make decisions about what goes into our bodies, whether it is meat, potato chips, lettuce, fruits, vegetables, or raw fish in the form of sushi. Some individuals might perceive health benefits and/or like the taste of raw milk over pasteurized milk. The decision to do so is both what makes us adults and gives us the right to choose, thereby giving additional meaning to "my body, my choice." Raw milk has been readily available in most states, and what the overall lack of demand and health issues indicate is that banning raw milk in all 50 states as a public health concern is simply not justified.