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Center for a Livable Future


A Literature Review of the Risks and Benefits of Consuming Raw and Pasteurized Cow's Milk

Benjamin J.K. Davis, Cissy X. Li, Keeve E. Nachman
Report, December 8, 2014

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Executive Summary

A bill entitled “House Bill 3, Health - Milk Products - Raw Milk - Consumer-Owned Livestock” was introduced to the Maryland House of Delegates during the 2014 session of the General Assembly. In response to concerns regarding the public health and safety of allowing the sale of raw milk directly to consumers, the Health and overnment Operations Committee requested a review of the benefits and risks of drinking raw cow’s milk and pasteurized (i.e. heat-treated) milk. This review aims to provide an objective evaluation of the claims that health benefits of raw milk outweigh any potential risks.

We examined the scientific literature for research regarding the health benefits and risks of raw and pasteurized liquid bovine milk. Based on a rigorous search strategy, we identified more than 1000 scientific articles for consideration in our review. We then reviewed abstracts of these articles to narrow the study database to articles that fit our scope. After eliminating articles that were not informative to the questions posed, our screening process resulted in the inclusion of 81 articles from the peer-reviewed literature.

Based on our review of the scientific evidence, we conclude that drinking raw milk carries an increased risk of foodborne illness as compared to drinking pasteurized milk. We identified several articles that detected a relationship between drinking raw milk and reduced allergies among rural children and infants. The underlying cause for this relationship, however, has not been identified. While some articles noted nutritional deficiencies in pasteurized milk, these can be overcome by eating a well-balanced diet. Overall, our review identified no evidence that the potential benefits of consuming raw milk outweigh the known health risks.

Based on our findings, we discourage the consumption of raw milk. The risks of consuming raw milk instead of pasteurized milk are well established in the scientific literature, and in some cases can have severe or even fatal consequences. The potential benefits on the other hand, are still unclear and would benefit from further investigation. We are left with a large uncertainty about the potential benefits of raw milk but with a clear understanding of the microbial hazards from consuming raw milk.

We believe the scope of the review and the employed search methods are unbiased and representative of the available scientific literature; only future research will remove current uncertainties. While future research could inform decision-making on the legalization of raw milk, we believe that from a public health perspective, it is a far safer choice to discourage the sale of raw milk. Regardless, we believe that the potential health risks of consuming raw milk should be clearly communicated, especially to vulnerable populations such as pregnant women, children, and the elderly.