With all the concerns about how dairy is produced beyond what’s natural—from use of antibiotics and hormones to pasteurization—you may be keeping an eye out for raw milk and cheese. But raw milk harbors harmful bacteria that pasteurization helps purge. A lot of states forbid or restrict sales of unpasteurized (that is, “raw”) milk, and now, because of increasingly frequent reports of food poisoning, state and federal governments are turning sharper eyes on people’s free choice to consume it…and this crackdown is spreading to the availability of raw cheese as well.

But raw milk may have some health benefits, too. How strongly should you fight if you want free access to raw dairy? In this Daily Health News report, we provide what you need to know about raw dairy, your health and your safety.


Studies cited by raw milk advocates show that proteins and compounds in raw milk, which are altered during the pasteurization process, may keep the immune system from overreacting to allergens. In addition, they say, heating milk lessens the potency of important minerals and vitamins, such as vitamin D, and impacts healthful gut bacteria in raw milk necessary to aid in digestion and prevent illness. Most nutrition experts and food researchers, such as Joy Dubost, RD, PhD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a nutritional consultant in Washington, DC, however, say that the research claims about raw dairy and improved nutrition and immunity are weak.

But aside from the issue of whether raw milk is more nutritious or better for your gut or immunity than pasteurized milk is the question of whether the supposed benefits outweigh the risk of food poisoning. A just published study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, who reviewed 81 articles on the topic, found that raw milk might mitigate allergy development in children and that pasteurization deactivates riboflavin (vitamin B-2) from milk. However, they also found overwhelming evidence that raw milk is a major cause of food poisoning. In fact, more than half of all milk-related foodborne illnesses were traced to raw milk even though only an estimated 3.5% of the US population consumes it.

Bacterial contaminants commonly found in raw milk include Salmonella, Listeria and, infrequently, a strain of E. coli that can cause anemia and permanent kidney failure. But the bacteria most implicated in a swathe of recently reported food poisoning outbreaks traced to raw milk is Campylobacter. Besides the usual symptoms of foodborne illness—cramps, diarrhea and vomiting—Campylobacter infection can cause long-lasting arthritis and nerve damage in some people.

The elderly and others with challenged immune systems and also children and teenagers may be at the greatest risk for foodborne illness from raw-milk products, according to Dr. Dubost and other nutrition experts, such as the Johns Hopkins researchers.


Retail sale of raw milk is legal in 10 states, on-farm sale is legal in another 16, and seven states have legalized herdshare programs, in which a number of people “buy in” to owning dairy cows from which they receive raw milk. Although raw milk advocates are very concerned that their access to raw milk will soon be terminated, states where raw milk is available seem to, instead, be adopting a “buy/drink at your own risk” stance. For example, although the California Department of Public Health has recently issued a public health alert about raw milk in light of Campylobacter infection outbreaks, raw milk can be purchased in retail stores so long as it carries a warning label about foodborne illness.


The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has stepped up its inspections of raw cheese, and in most states it is, in fact, illegal to sell soft cheese varieties, such as Brie, Camembert and Mexican queso fresco, made from raw milk. Cheeses made from raw milk that are aged for at least 60 days, such as cheddar, Gorgonzola, Gouda, Gruyere, Parmesan and Romano, however, are considered safe. That’s because the aging process makes unpasteurized cheese more acidic, killing most bacterial contaminants. Cheese makers, however, worry that the FDA will eventually ban raw-milk cheese entirely or extend the minimum aging time to the point where production of some types of raw-milk cheese currently allowed may be impractical or impossible.

Findings from a recent study by researchers affiliated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though, will likely to be used to make consumption of cheese—any cheese—safer rather than take away your right to eat it raw. The findings will also help you choose where you get your cheese, which may help you avoid food poisoning.

In reviewing 82 cheese-related food poisoning outbreaks that have occurred over the past 13 years, the researchers discovered that 46% were caused by cheese made from raw milk and that a higher percentage, 54%, were caused by cheese made from pasteurized milk. Whereas foodborne illness from pasteurized cheese was traced to unhygienic food handling before the cheese reached its final consumers, illness from raw-milk cheese was generally traced to bacterial contaminants from farm animals or the environment. By and large, outbreaks associated with raw-milk cheese were related to Mexican queso fresco and also homemade cheese or cheese purchased directly from farms—not artisanal cheeses displayed in cheese shops or served up in wine bars. Outbreaks from pasteurized cheese, on the other hand, were often associated with cheese trays and cheeses served at banquets, delis and restaurants.

The bottom line is, despite what the health benefits may be, pasteurized milk is a lot safer to drink than unpasteurized milk…and raw cheese, or any cheese, is as safe as where it comes from—a barn where cheese is an afterthought or a cheese-making operation run with hygiene in mind…a dirty deli slicer or a well-refrigerated, sealed and date-stamped store package. “Know where your food comes from” goes a long way here.

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