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Raw Milk Is On The Rise: What Are The Risks?

As reports suggest a growing threat from bird flu in dairy cows to humans who drink raw milk, public health officials are advising Americans to avoid unpasteurized products. Tests have confirmed the presence of live bird flu virus (H5N1) in milk taken directly from sick cows. Despite these warnings, raw milk enthusiasts remain undeterred, with sales increasing significantly.

Since H5N1 was detected in U.S. dairy cows at the end of March, sales of raw milk have risen by as much as 21%, according to data from NielsenIQ. Compared to the same period last year, raw milk sales have surged by 65%. William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist and professor at Vanderbilt University, attributes this increase to a paradoxical effect where people anticipate scarcity or possible restrictions and rush to purchase raw milk before it potentially becomes unavailable.

Many wellness influencers, including Gwyneth Paltrow, have promoted raw milk as part of a “natural” lifestyle, contributing to its popularity. The Raw Milk Institute, a nonprofit organization, argues that raw milk is safe and highlights research suggesting it may have antiviral properties and other health benefits. However, Dr. Schaffner emphasizes the need to balance potential benefits against the risks, noting that outbreaks of bacterial infections continue to occur among raw milk consumers.

Health Risks of Raw Milk

Federal data from 1993 to 2012 reveal 127 disease outbreaks in the United States linked to raw milk or raw milk products, resulting in 1,909 illnesses and 144 hospitalizations. Due to the current threat of bird flu, the CDC and FDA are advising the public to avoid raw milk and affirming that pasteurization makes milk safe.

The USDA assures that the commercial milk supply poses no risk to consumer health despite the bird flu outbreak, as pasteurization effectively deactivates microorganisms. This process, which uses heat to kill disease-causing bacteria in milk, has proven effective against the bird flu virus. Recent FDA testing of pasteurized milk samples has confirmed the absence of live H5N1.

Current Bird Flu Risks

Mark McAfee, chairman of the Raw Milk Institute, argues that public health warnings are unfounded, pointing out that there have been no cases of avian influenza in humans from raw milk consumption. This year, only two Americans have tested positive for H5N1, with infections resulting from exposure to sick cows rather than raw milk ingestion. Although these cases were mild, bird flu can be life-threatening, having caused 463 deaths worldwide between 2003 and April 2024.

While the immediate risk of a bird flu outbreak among people in the U.S. is low, Dr. Schaffner stresses that federal measures are justified. He notes that illnesses from raw milk can spread to close contacts and potentially the broader community, posing a public health concern.

Despite the increase in raw milk sales and its promotion by wellness influencers, the risks associated with raw milk consumption remain significant. Public health officials continue to recommend pasteurized milk as a safe alternative, especially in light of the current bird flu threat. The balance between potential benefits and the proven risks of raw milk consumption should guide consumer choices and public health policies.

Do you drink raw milk? Why or why not? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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