The Salt
10:33 am
Mon March 5, 2012

Raw Milk Proponents Don't Trust Health Officials

You'd think that scary numbers from the big dogs in infectious disease would be enough to make raw milk drinkers reconsider that choice.

But don't count on it. Just 7 percent of raw milk consumers say they trust health officials' recommendations on what foods are safe to eat, according to a new study.

That means that 93 percent of those folks aren't convinced when health officials say that raw milk products can cause diseases like bovine tuberculosis, Q-fever, and brucellosis, as well as more common food-borne illnesses like Listeria and Salmonella.

"This lack of trust casts doubt on whether or not consumer education by local or state health departments would be effective in preventing milk-borne disease due to raw milk contamination," the authors at Michigan State University conclude. The survey was published in the March issue of Food Protection Trends.

Health officials have no problem providing evidence that raw milk products increase the risk of illness and death. Two weeks ago, the federal Centers for Disease Control published data showing that raw milk caused most of the serious illnesses and deaths from milk-related disease outbreaks in the United States.

But it looks like raw milk drinkers don't believe them, no matter what the evidence. But they do trust the farmers.

Support for local farmers was the no. 1 reason people cited for their preference for raw milk, followed by taste. The survey participants also said that they thought that raw milk helped reduce the risk of digestive problems, allergies and intestinal diseases overall, and that it was more nutritious overall than pasteurized milk. That matches pretty well with other surveys of raw milk consumers, including this 2010 effort from the University of Wisconsin.

That's where proponents of raw milk and public health officials diverge. The scientists say there's no proof of nutritional benefits in raw milk, and that any benefits that might exist are outweighed by the safety risks.

The raw-milk purchasers in the Michigan survey were largely college educated people around age 29, who lived in the country or in the suburbs.

Caveats: The Michigan State study was very small, with just 56 people participating. And it didn't survey people who don't drink raw milk, since the survey was only sent to people already buying the products.

As The Salt's Eliza Barclay has reported, tensions are escalating between federal health agencies and proponents of raw milk. Two weeks ago, a federal court backed the FDA's effort to keep a Pennsylvania farmer from selling raw milk across state lines.

A hat tip to Food Safety News, which clued us in to the Michigan study.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.