The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study in December 2014, which found the average number of yearly bacterial outbreaks from drinking raw milk has more than quadrupled. However, this has not deterred local farmers or advocates from selling and drinking it.
Raw milk does not undergo pasteurization, a heating process that kill microbes, so there is a greater risk for bacteria such as salmonella, E. coli and campylobacter, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
“There is definitely an increased risk factor with unpasteurized milk,” said Lauren Bowen, a neurologist at UF Health Shands Hospital. “Bacteria like E. coli is a major issue. If the toxins reach the brain it can cause swelling, strokes and seizures, among other things.”
A previous study by the CDC found an average of three bacterial outbreaks per year between 1993 and 2006. The new study shows that the annual average is now up to 13. From 2007 to 2012, the consumption of raw milk resulted in almost 1,000 illnesses and 73 hospitalizations nationwide, according to the study.
“Unpasteurized products can be dangerous,” Bowen said. “Normal people with healthy immune systems probably have a better chance than someone who is immunosuppressed. But everybody has their day so you never know.”
The CDC warns that drinking raw milk can lead to diarrhea, vomiting, kidney failure, paralysis and other illnesses or even death.
Despite disease warnings and raw milk being labeled strictly for animal consumption, some members of the Gainesville community swear by the health benefits of the unpasteurized option.
“Raw milk is much better for you. It is the safer version and the enzymes help digestion,” said Maria Minno, a biologist and raw milk supporter. “A lot of the minerals and good things in raw milk are destroyed in pasteurization.”
Minno, 58, first turned to raw milk more than 10 years ago when she was trying to recover from mercury poisoning. She has lived in Gainesville since 1984 and has not had any problems finding raw milk, though it is illegal to sell for human consumption in Florida.
The sale of raw milk for human consumption is legal in 30 states. Local farmers, such as Howard Kurtz, owner of Kurtz and Sons Dairy in Live Oak, label their raw milk ‘pet food,’ in accordance with Florida law. What people do with the milk once purchased is out of his hands.
“It’s a shame we have to go about selling it this way,” Kurtz said. “We all know what people are buying it for.”
His dairy has been in business since 1991. It sells pasteurized milk, raw milk, eggs and drinkable yogurt, all with milk from his grass-fed herd. Kurtz said he is not fazed by the warnings. And neither are his 300 loyal raw milk customers.
Proponents of the unpasteurized version have cited health benefits, better taste and longer shelf life when questioned about their decision to go raw.
People are easily able to obtain it from area dairies, farmers markets and a handful of local supermarkets. Kurtz sells his milk at Ward’s Supermarket in Gainesville, as well as several other stores throughout North Central Florida.
Kurtz and his wife run the dairy by themselves. He milks the cows every day to the sounds of Neil Young, after rinsing and drying the the cows off with a warm towel. Kurtz said he knows that his herd is clean and is not concerned about bacteria.
“Big dairies use pasteurization as a crutch for dirty milk. It’s much better to keep things natural,” he said. “If the milk is clean already, why cook it? My milk is clean as could be.”
The Florida Department of Agriculture awarded Kurtz and Sons Dairy the prize for the state’s cleanest milk in 2007. He has won three times and consistently places in the top 20. The legal limit for bacteria in a dairy’s lab report is 100,000. Kurtz’s is 650.
Kurtz, his wife Leslie and their three children all drink raw milk. Kurtz said he is not concerned about the dangers. “I don’t see any benefits in pasteurized,” he said. “The raw has enzymes in it as well as vitamin C that haven’t been de-natured by heat. Everything is in there and it is better for you.”
He is not aware of any issues or illnesses affecting his customers, but a bad batch of raw milk can wreak havoc on a body.
Owen Metzger, a 34-year-old Gainesville resident, drank raw milk for about two years, until he became sick in late 2007. His aunt had introduced him to it and he quickly made the switch.
“I wasn’t able to keep anything in for days so I went to the hospital,” he said of his experience. “The whole ordeal was miserable really. I’m just glad it didn’t go any further.”
He was admitted to UF Health Shands Hospital in October of 2007 when his kidneys stopped functioning properly. Metzger was released about three weeks later after undergoing multiple treatments, including several blood transfusions.
“Everyone warns you about it and most of my friends thought I was crazy when I told them I was drinking it,” he said. “I’m going to listen to them more often.”
Although he did not purchase his milk from Kurtz and Sons, it was made locally. Metzger declined to name the specific dairy.
Warnings from doctors, the Food and Drug Administration and the CDC have yet to deter most raw milk drinkers, who believe the benefits outweigh the risks.
“There has been a huge increase in the number of people who are drinking raw milk,” Minno said, regarding the CDC study. “You would just expect the number of cases to increase as well.”