Made in Maine: Thoughts on Food, Animals, and Agriculture

Just the Facts, Ma’am

By Donald E. Hoenig, VMD

Kids and hay bales in VW BusWhenever I’m asked to talk about raw milk to a group of farmers or consumers in Maine, I always show a picture of two of my kids from about 30 years ago. They’re smiling, looking out the side window and door of our 1974 Volkswagen bus, which is parked in our pasture, filled with freshly baled hay. I tell folks that we used to milk goats and that, yes, our whole family, including all three of our young kids, drank the raw milk from those goats. None of us ever got sick and the milk was delicious. As a veterinarian, I was well aware of the risks associated with the consumption of raw milk, but my wife and I made the conscious decision that the benefits of drinking raw milk from our small farm outweighed the risks for our young family. Of course, we were meticulously clean in our husbandry and sanitation, and made certain that our goats were healthy.

The next thing I tell my audience is that consuming raw milk is not safer than consuming pasteurized milk. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, former Senator from New York, once wisely said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts.” Well, folks, the facts are in. We’ve had a lot of time to compile and analyze data in this country since pasteurization of milk was introduced in the 1930s. These data — these facts — tell us that the relative risk of consuming raw milk is 184 times greater than the risk of consuming pasteurized milk. Put another way, that means that a person is 184 times more likely to become sick if he or she drinks raw milk than if he or she drank pasteurized milk. And the people most at risk are the most vulnerable folks in our society — children, the elderly and immune-compromised individuals (such as people undergoing chemotherapy for cancer). The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 148 disease outbreaks due to raw milk consumption from 1998 to 2011, resulting in 2,384 illnesses, 284 hospitalizations and two deaths.

dairy cows; photo by Edwin RemsbergFor many years, Maine has been one of 20 states that allow citizens the freedom of choice with respect to raw milk. Maine raw milk dealers must be licensed by the Maine Department of Agriculture. Their products are tested frequently throughout the year and Department personnel inspect their farms regularly. However, the licensing, testing and inspection of these farms is not an assurance of raw milk safety. Maine’s program merely sets minimum standards for sale.

Another fact: In Maine, we have had illnesses directly linked to the consumption of raw milk purchased from licensed Maine dealers. Some folks have been sickened by a parasite called Cryptosporidiosis, a disease commonly implicated as the cause of diarrhea in young calves. In people, it also causes diarrhea for two to three weeks, usually without serious consequences. I worry that someday we won’t be so lucky, and that a child or elderly person will become seriously ill or die from a raw milk-borne illness caused by a more serious pathogen such as E. coli or Listeria.

If you are a raw milk consumer and you have kids, or if you take care of an elderly parent or grandparent, or if someone in your family is undergoing chemotherapy, please think twice about allowing them to consume raw milk. Or at a minimum, at least visit the farm, look at the animals, evaluate the hygiene and talk to the farmers. Then make an informed decision.

Dr. Hoenig retired as the Maine State Veterinarian in 2012 and, after completing a year-long Congressional Fellowship in Sen. Susan Collins’ office in Washington DC last year, in January 2014 he started working as a part-time Extension Veterinarian for University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

Dr. Hoenig invites you to submit questions and comments to Answers to selected questions will appear in future blog posts.