Raw milk can make you sick.

picture of a baby with a salmonella infection

A hard to get food with a maligned reputation but in-credible, but disputed, health benefits is not an usual thing in the alternative health business. One of the latest is raw milk.

From the June 12th – 18th 2010 edition of The Economist, page 36

Public health advocates dispute the health benefits, though, and say that raw milk is inherently risky, especially for children, old people, and anybody with health problems. Between 1998 and 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control, some 1,600 people became sick after drinking the stuff. Nearly 200 were hospitalized and two died. The actual incidence of minor illness may be higher, as many people afflicted by food-borne disease suffer in the privacy of their homes.

John Sheehan, the director dairy safety for the Food and Drug Administration, says that the agency has thoroughly examined the claimed health benefits and found no support for any of them. He adds that regulation cannot guarantee safety: in the states where raw milk is sold legally, there have been nearly three times as many outbreaks of illness as in the states where it is not. Presumably there is also more raw milk drunk in the former group, but there is no good way to measure the size of the illicit market in the latter.

Because of the risk of salmonella and other nasty bugs, it is against the law to sell raw milk across state lines. But more than two dozen states let farmers sell raw milk directly from their farms, subject to various rules, and a handful even allow retail sales. Several states are taking a new look at the issue. A serious blow to the cause came last month in Wisconsin, one of American’s largest dairy states. It already allows incidental sales of raw milk –a few galons here and there — but Jim Doyle, the governor, has vetoed a bill that would have allowed it to be sold more widely.

His veto was something of a surprise. The bill had passed both houses of the state legislature by a healthy margin. Many lawmakers were moved by the idea that allowing raw-milk sales would help small farmers. Mr. Doyle had indicated that he would sign the bill. But after lobbying by the dairy industry and public-health pressure groups, he changed his mind. One concern was that an outbreak caused by dodgy raw milk could damage the reputation of Wisconsin’s entire dairy industry.

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