Drink Your Milk (Pasteurized)

There are probably a million policy arguments about food, and what the government’s role in food safety ought to be.

Yesterday, my cousin–a respected cardiologist–sent me a document warning about the documented health dangers of drinking raw milk, and what he assured me is an ill-conceived and dangerous movement to change current laws that make selling raw milk illegal. Proponents of the change insist–in the face of overwhelming research suggesting otherwise–that raw milk is not only safe, but able to cure a variety of diseases.

In New York, Mayor Bloomberg is under attack from everyone from libertarians to Jon Stewart for his effort to ban the sale of sodas larger than 16 ounces. And the movement against genetically-enhanced foods continues to gain adherents. (I confess to sympathy with many of their arguments myself.)

These debates raise the threshold policy question: what is the role of government? Are rules against raw milk evidence that we live in a nanny state, or are those rules precisely the sort of protections for which government must be responsible?

Most citizens do not have access to scientific evidence nor the ability to interpret that evidence. I know I don’t. So what should government do when experts identify a “clear and present” danger?

Unsurprisingly, I think the answer is: it depends.

In some cases–perhaps most–government’s role should probably be limited to that of informer, publicizing the danger and ensuring that individuals possess the relevant information when making personal choices. But in other cases the danger is either too serious or the harm to others who haven’t chosen to risk the behavior too great. The smoking ban falls in the latter category.

The raw milk controversy underlines the most basic tension presented by the libertarian principle that we should be free to live and do as we wish unless and until we harm the person or property of a non-consenting other: what is harm?

To which we might add, what should government do when a harm is confirmed by science but not obvious to reasonable observers? Or when scientists disagree?

In an increasingly complex world, where technology and genetic manipulation make the accoutrements of everyday life more mysterious and impenetrable, these aren’t easy questions.


  1. Thanks Prof
    Part of the problem is that the “News” folks now put ALL opinions on the same level. They think a world famous scientist is equal to a casual ovserver. They do this all the time, especially on Fox. He says / she says. You decide. As if the information is equally valid. Scientist = Granny
    Research = Gut Feeling
    Bad way to decide public policy.
    The right LOVES their gut feelings. It keeps those nasty facts out of their head.

  2. ANY milk from a cow is a collection of germs, pus and blood and disease. Dairy farmers routinely continuously rape/impregnate cows for constant milk flow. Male calves are killed shortly after birth because they are not valued.

    I refuse to use any dairy products as they are unsafe for human consumption and the dairy industry inflicts too much cruelty on these animals.

    Source: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Mercy for Animals.

  3. Lucky for me, I’m lactose intolerant. Frankly, I don’t want to live in a country that doesn’t inspect its food supply.

  4. I WANT the government to hire the scientists to test our food, water, air, medicines, etc. and sound the alarm when health threats become apparent.
    Being raised on a farm, my family had a milk pasteurizer – we never drank the milk without pasteurizing it first. It was too risky even though we raised cattle in green pastures rather than in corporate farm pens. Male and female cattle were valued and raised with great care and attention to their medical and other needs. One sick animal could cause the loss of a whole herd. Ultimately most did go to the stockyards, but until then, many – especially the milk cows – had names and were treated like large pets.

  5. The government needs to keep us informed on all health issues but controlling our behavior and basic rights is getting out of control. There are important factors to concentrate on in this country; how many US citizens have access to raw milk and/or order 16 ounce sugary drinks vs. how many US citizens are effected by joblessness, proper health care at reasonable cost, tax rates, home foreclosures, lack of quality eduction in our schools, concerns about protection by police and firemen, collapsing infrastructure, US involvement in wars hither, thither and yon around the world, gas prices, etc., etc. etc.? Smoking is unhealthy but is NOT illegal, yet it is illegal to smoke in most public establishments. It is not illegal to drink more than 16 ounces of any liquid but this limit could be applied to alcoholic beverages which causes drunk driving accidents and deaths while too many 16 ounce sugary drinks might cause health issues and overweight. What diseases can raw milk cure and if that is the case, why is there no raw milk section in dairy departments of all supermarkets? Thanks to genetically enhanced foods, it has been years since I have bought a tomato that tasted like a tomato. Progress does not always mean improvement. Common sense, logic and establishing priority of issues in order of their importance was lost long ago by this government and by the majority of US citizens as we try to survive in this stagnant economy.

  6. Sheila raises some interesting points about government intervention. When
    >it comes to matters of health, I believe that a “nanny state” concept has
    >real merit. Most people have no idea of the dangers or safety of various
    >presumably “risky” activities. They often don’t really appreciate when
    >exposures are really safe, especially when attended by nasty sounding
    >labels, such as foods that are “genetically altered” or “irradiated”.
    >This often results in avoidance of products that may be quite beneficial.
    > So, what is the answer? Obviously, publishing information supplied by
    >credible experts about health issues of importance is basic to the entire
    >process. But when immediate risks jeopardize individual health as well as
    >imposing extra costs to society in general, i.e., the taxpayer, I believe
    >we need active government intervention.
    > A good example of this principle is provided by the need for
    >motorcyclists to wear helmets. One may say that each individual should be
    >free to go out and injure him/herself, but when such idiots arrive at
    >medical facilities, someone has to foot the bells, which are often
    >astronomical. I suppose that mandatory medical insurance might mitigate
    >societal costs, but it doesn’t get to the nub of the issue. Seatbelt
    >requirements offer the same arguments. So, why does Indiana, and many
    >other states, allow for one and not the other? With regard to helmets,
    >Indiana law requires only those motorcycle drivers and riders under 18 to
    >wear a helmet and protective glasses, goggles, or transparent face
    >shields. On the other hand, all passengers in automobiles are required to
    >wear seatbelts. In the case of health issues, we should expect the FDA to
    >rigorously prevent the sale of adulterated products, such as raw milk and
    >many others. Maybe restricting sale of large surgery drinks goes a bit
    >too far, but I would certainly prefer to err on the side of too much
    >caution rather than too little!
    > Regards, Morton Tavel, MD
    Clinical Professor of Medicine, Indiana University School of Medicine
    Author: “Snake Oil is Alive and Well: The Clash between Myths and Reality”

  7. Dr. Tavel, it is unclear to me why you describe raw milk as an “adulterated product”, since by it’s very nature it is unadulterated. Most of the cow, buffalo, goat and sheep’s milk that was consumed on the planet by humans this morning was raw milk.

  8. To Jeff Mease,
    If I referred to raw milk as an “adulterated” product, then my semantics were perhaps a bit loose. But “unadulterated” is also an inappropriate term. My reason for stating this is that, prior to the huge breakthrough provided by Louis Pasteur in the late 19th century, everyone was drinking “unadulterated” milk, a product that gave rise to widespread diseases and epidemics. As Pasteur wisely indicated, pathogenic bacteria (germs) were frequently allowed to “adulterate” milk, and they could be effectively eliminated by simply heating this product to a specified degree. In case you believe that the underlying threat of milk-borne disease is no longer present, I would simply refer you to the following article (among others): LeJaune JT and Rajala-Schultz PJ. Unpasteurized Milk: A continued public health threat. Clinical Infectious Diseases. 2009;48:93-100.
    Yours truly, Morton Tavel, MD

  9. Thank you, Dr. Tavel, for bringing sound reason to a topic that often lacks it. I think people oppose pasteurization for the same reason they oppose immunization. They do not know or remember what it was like before those great strides in public health were made. Certainly, no one of childbearing age in the U.S. would remember the scourge of polio and most of the other diseases for which children are immunized. There would be very few people, if any, alive today in the U.S. who grew up during a time when pasteurization of milk and milk products was uncommon.

    I’m surprised the raw milkists did not come out in full force the way they usually do when the topic comes up on blogs. I guess this blog did not show up in their Google alerts.

    I’ve had my own dealings in a professional capacity with Indiana’s Board of Animal Health in the past. BOAH does not really enforce state law on the issue of raw milk sales, at least, not that I can tell. The people at BOAH know that raw milk is being sold in Indiana and simply ignore it.

    I look at it this way. If I’m gonna drink cow sh*t and pus, I’d like it to be pasteurized.

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