Fredrickson: Colorado ‘raw milk’ trend poses health risks

Michelle Fredrickson

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by the Collegian or its editorial board.  

Acknowledging milk pasteurization as a key public health advancement, Colorado was one of many states to outlaw sale of raw milk – that is, milk straight from the cow without undergoing treatment.

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Lugene Sas is a dairy farmer in Fort Collins, Colorado. The farm has more than 20 cows and provides unpasteurized milk to private owners across Northern Colorado. (Erica Giesenhagen | Collegian)

However, a legal loophole in Colorado has enabled some people to legally drink it. The CDC considers raw milk one of the riskiest food trends, as it is very often associated with harmful bacterial infections like E. coli, salmonella, and campylobacter.

It surprised no one when a Colorado outbreak of drug-resistant campylobacter was linked to raw milk, all obtained legally through this legal loophole. The loophole allows people who are members of a herd-share program, which is unregulated, to consume raw milk from those herds and to share it amongst themselves.

The outbreak happened in 2016, but the CDC last week shared a report conclusively proving that the raw milk was to blame. The situation left public health officials’ hands tied.

“(The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment) did not close the dairy or stop distribution of its milk because without pasteurization, CDPHE could not create standards for safely reopening the dairy,” investigators wrote in a CDC report.

All CDPHE could do was notify the members of the herd-share about the problem and urge them to discard the raw milk, as well as put out reminders that reselling milk to non-shareholders is illegal. Overall, as many as 17 people became sick. There were no deaths, but the case raised public health alarms because the strain of bacteria was resistant to the antibiotics usually used to treat it.

The new CDC report brings up a good conversation, especially in the wake of the raw water trend coming out of California. People like the idea of things that are straight from the source with no outside influences, because they have forgotten why we have those outside influences to begin with. Pasteurization of milk, much like water filtration, is there to keep diseases out, and it has no significant impact on nutritional value.

CDPHE and other public health agencies should assess the levels of trust the community has in them, and work to raise that level.

Pasteurization is the process of heating milk to a specific temperature to kill harmful bacteria. It does not kill non-harmful bacteria, which is why pasteurized milk can still go bad. Some advocates for raw milk say that pasteurized milk causes allergic reactions, but that isn’t true. Allergy doesn’t discriminate based on the presence of harmful bacteria. If a person is allergic to dairy, they’re going to have an allergic reaction regardless of the pasteurization.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that raw milk is not safe. One company, Udder Milk, has been linked to several suspected cases of contamination with brucellosis. A long-term study by the CDC found that raw dairy products are 150 times more likely to cause illness than pasteurized counterparts.

Pasteurization has been practice since it invention in 1864, and it is a significant public health accomplishment. But now, a move toward untreated products has set this advancement back. A study in Michigan found that part of the reason people trend toward raw products isn’t that they’ve never heard of the negative health effects – it’s that they don’t trust public health officials to give them good advice on food safety.

This isn’t too surprising, because advocates of these products sow distrust in public health agencies. It does, however, provide an idea of where to go from here.

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Yes, lawmakers in Colorado need to take a long, hard look at this loophole and see what they can do about solving it. But more immediately than that, CDPHE and other public health agencies should assess the levels of trust the community has in them, and work to raise that level. If public health organizations don’t inspire public trust, then the messages they send out won’t help anyone.

There is no scientific evidence that raw milk provides anything pasteurized milk doesn’t provide. But if the public doesn’t trust the agencies giving them this information, the information won’t do its job.

I’m getting my master’s in public health, and I know that public health agencies at their core have the interest of the public at heart. A public health organization is not lying to or trying to trick the public when they give advice like not drinking untreated water or unpasteurized milk.

CDPHE should take the milk issue and use it as a mobilizer to investigate people’s trust in public health and address that issue. No matter how scientifically sound their advice may be, if people don’t trust them, then it’s useless.

Michelle Fredrickson can be reached at letters@collegian.com or online at @mfredrickson42