Dr. Nicole Neeser grew up on a farm and admits that, as a kid, she occasionally drank raw milk.
But as an adult, she said, the idea holds no appeal. Not given her experience as assistant director of dairy and food inspection for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
Just last week, state officials reported that 25 Minnesotans developed salmonella poisoning this spring from eating a Mexican-style cheese made with raw milk. Fifteen were hospitalized, but all have recovered.
For the Health and Agriculture departments, which jointly investigated the outbreak, it was a chance to remind consumers about the dangers of unpasteurized dairy products.
But Neeser isn’t surprised that some people shrug off those warnings. “People are basing their opinion or perception on anecdotal or testimonial stories,” she said. “Anecdotes and testimony can be really powerful, but not necessarily evidence-based.”
Ed Davis, of St. Paul, doesn’t dispute that. A member of the Food Freedom Project, he said he has been drinking raw milk for eight years and believes that the benefits outweigh the risks. “I’m not sure there’s any real studies to prove it,” he said, but European scientists have found “a lot of health benefits.” He argued that pasteurization — which uses heat to kill bacteria — also kills valuable enzymes and vitamins, and disrupts the digestive system.
What does the science say? William Marler, a Seattle lawyer who specializes in food-contamination lawsuits, has created a website, realrawmilkfacts.com, to try to answer that question, with more than a dozen scientific advisers. What is shown, in a chart analyzing studies, is light on benefits and heavy on risks.
Neeser, a veterinarian, says there’s no contest. “Nutritionally, really all milk is the same,” she said. Not everyone gets sick from raw milk, but it can cause diarrhea, kidney disease, paralysis, even death. As anyone who lives on a farm knows, she said, “it’s an inherently dirty environment where there’s a lot of bacteria.”