Humans consumed raw milk exclusively prior to the industrial revolution and the discovery of the pasteurization process in 1864. During the industrial revolution large populations congregated into urban areas detached from the agricultural lifestyle. Up until that point, individuals and families owned their own goats, cows, and other livestock and milked them on a daily basis.
Pasteurization was first used in the United States in the 1890s after the discovery of germ theory to control the hazards of highly contagious bacterial diseases including bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis that was thought to be easily transmitted to humans through the drinking of raw milk. Initially after the scientific discovery of bacteria, no product testing was available to determine if a farmer’s milk was safe or infected, so all milk was treated as potentially contagious. After the first test was developed, some farmers actively worked to prevent their infected animals from being killed and removed from food production, or would falsify the test results so that their animals would appear to be free of infection.
When it was first used, pasteurization was thought to make raw milk from any source safer to consume. More recently, farm sanitation has greatly improved and effective testing has been developed for bovine tuberculosis and other diseases, making other approaches to ensuring safety of milk more feasible; however pasteurization continues to be widely used to prevent infected milk from entering the food supply. The recognition of many potentially deadly pathogens, such as E. coli O157:H7, Listeria, and Salmonella, and their presence in milk products has led to the continuation of pasteurization.
The Department of Health and Human Services, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and other health agencies of the United States strongly recommend that the public does not consume raw milk or raw milk products. Young children, the elderly, people with weakened immune systems, and pregnant women are particularly susceptible to infections originating in raw milk.
Recent advances in the analysis of milk-borne diseases have enabled scientists to track the DNA of the infectious bacteria to the cows on the farms that supplied the raw milk. This technique eliminates much of the debate of the merits of safe milk practices.
Raw vs. Pasteurized Debate
The raw vs. pasteurized debate pits the alleged health benefits of consuming raw milk against the disease threat of unpasteurized milk. Although agencies such as the Centres for Disease Control (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and some regulatory agencies around the world say that pathogens from raw milk make it unsafe to consume, some organizations say that raw milk can be produced hygienically, and that it has health benefits that are destroyed in the pasteurization process. This latter statement is not supported by all research.
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