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Why Raw Milk Is More Dangerous And Costs More Than Pasteurized Milk


When you buy milk, it is almost always pasteurized. It's been heated to 145 degrees Fahrenheit to kill any harmful pathogens. That is the standard that some customers no longer want. Mary Childs from NPR's Planet Money podcast reports on people who want their milk unpasteurized, raw.

MARY CHILDS, BYLINE: I'm with dairy farmer Joel Hegee (ph), riding in a cream-colored van filled with coolers of raw milk. We're in Morrisville, Pa., winding on a road alongside the Delaware River.

What's on the other side of this river?

JOEL HEGEE: New Jersey.

CHILDS: And we're on?

HEGEE: Pennsylvania.


HEGEE: We can't go over there to sell raw milk.

CHILDS: He's meeting customers in parking lots along this road. Most of them today have driven anywhere from 5 miles to over an hour from their homes in New Jersey.

HEGEE: It's totally illegal to sell raw milk in New Jersey, and especially for someone from Pennsylvania.

CHILDS: Raw milk is legal in some states, not in others. And it's illegal to sell across state lines. Joel sells a gallon of raw milk for almost $9, which is nearly three times the price for regular milk around here. This is part of a raw milk revival in recent years, fueled by growing distrust in big food companies and things like GMOs, also the general rise in demand for organic food. Raw milk advocates point to studies that they say shows some benefits of drinking raw milk. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention adamantly disagrees.

MEGIN NICHOLS: Raw milk really accounts for a much higher burden of illness, disease and outbreaks.

CHILDS: Megin Nichols is the CDC lead on raw milk. She says those allergy studies don't really show much, and any potential benefit is not worth the risk. Milk often contains harmful germs, like E. coli, listeria, salmonella. Before pasteurization became the standard a hundred years ago, milk was a huge contributor to infant mortality and linked to diseases like typhoid. And then, in the 1920s, pasteurization made it safer.

NICHOLS: We see a disproportionate number of illnesses and outbreaks linked to the unpasteurized milk, given that only a really, really small percentage of our U.S. population actually consume the raw milk.

CHILDS: That small percentage is still about 6 million people. Choosing your beverages - that's a private decision. And in America, we're allowed to do all kinds of risky things. With raw milk, part of the growing popularity has been because of advocates pushing for the right to risk it.

Mark McAfee has been working for years to spread the gospel of raw milk. He's a big-time producer. And he used to ship it across the country through a loophole. Then he got busted.

MARK MCAFEE: The first thing I did when I was contacted was I absolutely admit that I sent this product across state lines, and I think your laws suck. They're wrong.

CHILDS: He settled his case out of court, but he's still pushing. He and a group sued the FDA to allow interstate commerce of raw butter. And his broader cause is gaining some support in Congress. In December, a representative from Kentucky introduced a bill to prohibit federal interference with raw milk. It has 21 co-sponsors, mostly Republicans.

MCAFEE: Why should it be that some arbitrary line in the dirt keeps someone from having a product that they really revere and want? Why wouldn't it be OK for me to ship it across state lines?

CHILDS: The CDC would want us to remind you here that, yes, you are allowed to take risks in private, but raw milk is 150 times more dangerous than pasteurized milk.

Mary Childs, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KORESMA'S "FOREST SANG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Childs
Mary Childs (she/her) is a co-host and correspondent for NPR's Planet Money podcast. Before joining the team in 2019, she was a senior reporter at Barron's magazine, where she covered the alternatives industry, the bond market and capitalism. Before that, she worked at the Financial Times and Bloomberg News. She's written about the pioneering of new asset classes like time, billionaire's proposals to solve inequality and diversity and discrimination in the finance industry. Before all that, she was also a Watson Fellow, spending a year traveling the world painting portraits. She graduated from Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, with a degree in business journalism and an honors thesis comparing the use and significance of media sting operations in the U.S. and India.
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