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Reporting on Raw Milk: Not For The Faint Of Heart (or Stomach)

Reporting on Raw Milk: Not For The Faint Of Heart (or Stomach)

Picture of Barbara Feder Ostrov

raw milk, Barbara Feder Ostrov, health journalism, reporting on health

I have to admit to feeling vindicated Wed. when I saw the latest stats on the safety of raw milk.

"A sour note for the raw-milk fans out there: Unpasteurized milk is 150 times more likely to cause a disease outbreak than pasteurized milk, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ," Amina Khan wrote for the Los Angeles Times.

The last time I wrote about raw milk, for the San Jose Mercury News, I was threatened with a lawsuit by the owner of a raw milk dairy who had run afoul over California's stringent new food safety laws in 2008 and then again in 2011.

Fortunately, my reporting held up, and the owner backed off. But it was a telling lesson for me – and most likely other journalists – in the passions raw milk can incite among its devotees and the public health experts who think it's dangerous.

Raw milk advocates view it as healthier and better-tasting than pasteurized milk, which is heated before it's sold to kill pathogens. Many public health officials view raw milk as a petri dish for E. coli, campylobacter and other germs that can cause severe and even fatal gastrointestinal illnesses, particularly in children.

The CDC report, published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, examined dairy disease outbreaks from 1993 to 2006 in every state. Dairy disease outbreaks were rarer in the 20 states that ban the sale of raw milk, the researchers found.

CDC researchers don't often use the word "remarkable" in their studies, but they did so here:

Because consumption of nonpasteurized dairy products is uncommon in the United States, the high incidence of outbreaks and outbreak-associated illness involving nonpasteurized dairy products is remarkable and greatly disproportionate to the incidence involving dairy products that were marketed, labeled, or otherwise presented as pasteurized

Consumption of nonpasteurized dairy products cannot be considered safe under any circumstances.

There are great stories to be found in many communities about raw milk and health, but you'll want to steel yourself against the predictable backlash from raw milk devotees unless you write the most positive of stories about the stuff. With the new CDC report, state battles to regulate raw milk, and numerous food poisoning lawsuits around the country against raw milk producers, though, you'll be hard-pressed to write any kind of puff piece.

Reporting Resources:

Food Safety and Raw Milk: CDC fact sheet

Nonpasteurized Dairy Products, Disease Outbreaks, and State Laws-United States, 1993–2006
Full-text CDC report from Emerging Infectious Diseases

Listeria-Tainted Melons Traced to Colorado Packing Shed: But What About the Next Food Safety Scare? Tips for reporting on foodborne illness and food safety from researcher and Barfblog author Doug Powell

Barfblog: Doug Powell's illuminating blog on food safety and foodborne illness

Food Safety News: Trade publication published by Marler Clark, one of the nation's leading foodborne illness litigation firms representing victims.

Weston A. Price Foundation: Raw milk advocacy group

Photo credit: cheeseslave via Flickr


Picture of Maureen OHagan

I wrote a story about raw milk a year or two ago, too, and while I did get a bunch of hate mail, there were no threats of lawsuits. I think the guy I wrote about was more focused on God's vindication than the courts.

Maureen O'Hagan


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