The Oregon Public Health Division, Department of Agriculture and several local Oregon health departments are investigating an outbreak of Escherichia coli O157:H7 (E. coli) infections that have left three Portland-area children hospitalized, two with hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a complication of E. coli infection that can lead to kidney failure.  All of these children drank raw milk from the same small farm:  Foundation Farm in Clackamas County.  According to news reports the number of ill are at least 11.  The farm has voluntarily ceased its milk distribution to customers in Clackamas, Multnomah, and Washington counties.

According to news reports over the last week, Missouri state health officials have confirmed 13 E. coli cases in Boone, Cooper, Howard, Camden and Jackson counties.  Health officials say a 2-year-old girl a 17-month-old child developed HUS, and while not all nine E. coli cases have been clearly attributed to raw milk consumption, investigators say consumption of raw dairy products is a “possible” factor in some of the cases.

Following is a Q&A with attorney Bill Marler, who has represented thousands of victims of foodborne illness, including dozens who became ill with E. coli and Campylobacter infections after drinking raw milk.

Q:  Pasteurization of milk was lauded as one of the biggest public health successes of the 20th Century.  Why are so many people turning away from pasteurized milk and seeking out sources of “raw”, or unpasteurized milk?

A:  People have been turning toward raw milk for a variety of reasons.  Some believe pasteurization kills beneficial bacteria and enzymes in milk.  Others have heard that raw milk consumption can cure asthma, eczema, or attention deficit disorder (ADD).  A parent will go to almost any lengths to provide what they believe is the most wholesome source of nutrients for their child, and well-presented misinformation about the purported health benefits of drinking raw milk abounds on the Internet so it’s really difficult for a consumer – even a really smart one – who is desperate to find a remedy to his or her child’s medical condition to discern fact from fiction when it comes to raw milk.

I think, too, that there’s an inherent distrust of government, so when the government or big agriculture tells people not to feed their kids raw milk it’s easy for people to ignore that advice.  Especially when they can afford the $16 a gallon.

Q:  Whole Foods and some other stores that sell many natural food products have stopped selling raw milk.  Why?

A:  Whole Foods and Seattle-area co-op PCC stopped selling raw milk products just over 2 years ago for a couple of reasons.  One reason was because unpasteurized milk is considered a high risk food, especially for children, pregnant women, an immunocompromised people – like people receiving cancer treatment, or those with HIV.  Another was because the liability insurance necessary to cover multi-million dollar HUS cases is not inexpensive.

Q:  You started raising your own chickens a couple of years ago, after a Salmonella outbreak traced to eggs.  Would you ever consider buying a cow or a goat and drinking its milk?

A:  Interesting question.  I grew up on a small farm and drank a bit of raw milk 40 years ago, however, today raw milk is simply too dangerous in part because of sanitation issues.  Cows, goats and sheep all defecate very close to where their milk is produced, allowing for a high probability for fecal contamination during the milking process to ever drink milk produced by this hypothetical new addition to my family.  In theory, I could home pasteurize milk produced by this animal and safely consume it, but I would still be responsible for cleaning up after it, and that would mean handling feces potentially contaminated with E. coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter or other pathogens.  I’ll leave that work to someone else with better skills and continue buying organic pasteurized milk from my local store.

Q:  What would you tell someone who was contemplating a purchase of raw milk?

A:  The first thing I would say is, “Please, I beg you, don’t feed it to your kids.”  Any adult contemplating a purchase of raw milk to consume individually should be educated about the risks associated with consuming unpasteurized dairy products.  Real Raw Milk Facts was inspired by discussions following presentations related to the increasing popularity of raw milk.  It was developed and reviewed by scientists and health educators in universities, government, industry, and professional organizations, and is supported in part by Marler Clark.  The Hot Topics section presents the facts about commonly asked questions related to raw milk consumption. 

Bottom line – be informed and forewarned.

  • George from UC

    I worked in a dairy for two years after finishing college (in charge of the QA Lab) and have never understood why people put themselves at risk by drinking raw milk.
    Milk is pasteurized by heating to 72°C (161°F) for 15–20 seconds. That does almost nothing to beneficial bacteria and enzymes in milk (milk still spoils if unrefrigerated, showing lactic bacteria are alive and well, and enzymes require higher temperatures for longer times in order to be inactivated).
    A cows feces and urine come out awfully close to its udder, and it needs to be washed down before being milked. A few seconds of rinsing is not going to remove 100% of the bacteria present. That is why milk is pasteurized, and that is why drinking raw milk is a bad idea.

  • Bill Anderson

    Hi Bill,
    I’m confused by this statement:
    “I grew up on a small farm and drank a bit of raw milk 40 years ago, however, today raw milk is simply too dangerous in part because of sanitation issues.”
    Are you suggesting that sanitation standards have gone down over the last 40 years? It seems to me that this is blatantly false. From all the research I’ve done, dairy sanitation has actually improved considerably over the last 4 decades.
    The two things which have declined in that time period, however, are health-related.
    First, the weakening of the American immune system, which is oft-discussed by raw milk proponents. I’m not going to get into detail here, but I think its fair to suggest that if you grew up around dairy animals, drinking raw milk, you probably have nothing to worry about. You will already have natural immunity to those pathogens.
    Secondly (not often discussed) is the health and stress levels of modern dairy cows. The average dairy cow today has been bred to produce more than twice the volume of milk as her ancestor of the 1970s. The stress this places on her system, combined with the high-potency feeds she must eat in order to produce this volume of milk, greatly increases the chances that she will shed pathogens.
    There is something to be said for the importance of “heritage” breeds in raw milk production, that can subsist on rougher forages with little to no grain.
    I don’t know why you claim this is a sanitation issue. Yes, sanitation and hygiene are important, but the main issues confronting safe raw milk production are not about sanitation. The main issue is industrialized agriculture. You cannot safely produce raw milk in the industrial CAFO model, no matter how clean you keep it.

  • I was talking about the increase in the nasty bacteria – E. coli O157:H7, etc. I should have been clearer. Regarding raw milk dairies I have seen – some have been clean and some much, much less so.
    As for your immunity argument, I do not buy it. I do not think we should run our lives – especially those of our children – as “what dies not kill ya makes ya stronger.” Why not skip all antibiotics and medical care?