On March 10, West Virginia's legislature passed a bill authorizing the consumption of raw milk. Republicans supported the measure on the basis of "farm-food freedom" and "consumer choice." Democrats, soberly noting that unpasteurized milk can contain high levels of deadly bacteria, opposed it on the grounds that "it's unwise and unsafe," as one opponent said.
There's good reason to fear raw milk. The same day that West Virginia passed its bill, a long-awaited study from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland reported that raw milk consumption significantly increased the risk of foodborne illness. Detection rates of listeria and campylobacter - two common food-related bacteria - were seven percent and three percent, respectively, in raw milk samples. More alarmingly, rates of these dangerous bacteria rose to 20 percent and 22 percent in the milk filters used to remove specks of feces from the milk (cows' tails frequently brush feces samples into milk containers while they're being milked).
Dr. Wayne Anderson, director of FSAI, wrote:
"While the market for raw milk is small, it remains a serious concern given the well-documented public health risks posed by the presence of pathogens in raw milk. We are therefore recommending that raw milk should be avoided by consumers." His message reflects what the United States Food and Drug Administration has long noted: that "unpasteurized milk can pose a serious health threat."
The effort among a vocal cult of consumers to reject wholesale pasteurization highlights how, when it comes to reforming the industrial food system, aesthetics easily trump reason - not to mention public safety. Not unlike the movement among anti-vaccine advocates, proponents of raw milk allow shallow idealizations of purity and free choice to undermine the quest for a food system that can provide safe and healthy food for all consumers all the time.
This article originally appeared on James-McWilliams.com.