Sick From Raw Milk

This is a post I hoped I’d never have to write. And honestly, I will admit that I considered not writing it. But I know that I have to.

I owe it to you, after all I’ve written on this subject, to be completely honest about what has happened, so that you can make an informed decision for your family, if raw milk is an issue for you at all.

Last week 4 members of our family came down with what we thought at first was an intestinal virus. There are a lot of viruses going around in our area, and I didn’t even consider any type of food poisoning . . . at first.

However, as it lingered, and I got sicker and sicker, I began to wonder. I had just published a post about our food choices and mentioned that I rarely get sick and when I do it is mild. This is true. I have never been so sick from a virus, and I could not shake this one. I began to wonder about our milk.

Then I got the email.

I was lying on the couch, weak and drowsy from days of my body expelling every morsel that I ate or drank, when the email from our raw milk provider arrived on my iPhone. Other customers were reporting similar illnesses in their homes, and many were tracking it to those who drank the raw milk. One customer had even tested positive for campylobacter — a common cause of bacterial foodborne illness. In that email, the farmer explained that they were looking into the situation, but for the time being, we should discontinue drinking their milk.

A sick, sinking feeling started in my stomach and radiated out to the tips of my fingers and toes.

I knew this is what had happened to my family. I JUST KNEW.

The farmer was skeptical that it was his milk, as his entire family was fine, but as the days went on, a test came back indicating that one particular batch of milk with a certain expiration date (the same date on my carton of milk) did indeed carry the campylobacter bacteria.

Meanwhile, I had been to my doctor and tested positive for the same. It was official.

My family had been sickened from drinking raw milk.

I always knew that there was a remote possibility of getting sick from raw milk, but I truly believed that if the farmer was reliable and diligent about following the proper protocol, that it was a very small chance, and that the benefits of drinking the raw milk far outweighed any risk. I was also led to believe that if there IS “bad bacteria” in the milk, the “good bacteria” should be able to suppress it, and people with strong immune systems should be able to fight it.

And in fact, I do believe this is what happened with us. Yes, we got sick, but we drank that entire gallon of milk. I think our bodies did a fairly good job of fighting it. My kids bounced back fairly quickly. I suffered the worst of all of us, and my doctor suggested that is perhaps because I tend to have a weak gut already.

Even though we are firm believers in the benefits of raw milk, we were never completely at peace with our decision to drink it. My husband and I have discussed our milk choice at great lengths over the past few years. We have always been in agreement with one another, but have debated it amongst ourselves time and time again. We always came back to the reasoning, if people were getting sick from it, we would hear more about it, and the stories we hear about people getting sick from food are always industrial foods, not carefully produced real foods from small family farms.

Plus, it tastes SO GOOD and it makes my belly SO HAPPY and I have always suspected that it is drinking raw milk that has helped my son’s asthma symptoms disappear so dramatically.

Which is why, I have to admit, I am really sad about this latest turn of events. Not only do I feel a horrible weight of guilt for putting my children at risk when it is my sworn duty to protect them, but I will miss my raw milk terribly.

That’s right. We are no longer drinking raw milk.

Not everyone afflicted by the campylobacter incident will stop drinking raw milk. In fact, in the newsletter I received last night from the farm, a letter from a devoted family was reprinted that basically stated their support for the farm and for the drinking of raw milk. As they said to their doctor, when people are sickened by contaminated spinach and cantaloupe, they aren’t told to discontinue eating them. So why is raw milk such the villain, when it has so many benefits and incidences like this are extremely rare?

I don’t know. And maybe it is short-sighted of me to stop drinking raw milk because of this one unfortunate incident. The truth is, there is no safe food. There is always a risk.

But the raw milk decision is one that we’ve been waffling on from the first gallon we purchased till the last, and this was the final straw.

I’m sure some of you are thinking: What’s the big hairy deal with milk? Just drink the “regular” stuff like everyone else and be done with it!

I thought about this (I had plenty of time to mull it over while I lay on the couch last week, wasting away) and it comes down to this.

Raw milk is a live food. It contains a plethora of essential amino acids, enzymes, beneficial bacteria, vitamins and minerals that supposedly boost our immune systems and may even help cure diseases. You can live on raw milk alone (it has been well documented). It is a complete food.

Pasteurized milk is dead. In fact, once it’s been cooked (pasteurized) and shaken up (homogenized), even the local grass-fed organic milk I can buy is just another processed food.

So why I do I care, anyway? We eat plenty of processed foods, truth be told.

Well, aside from the fact that I cannot drink pasteurized milk without becoming immediately and violently ill (due to what I assume is lactose intolerance) and raw milk goes down so easy . . .

Set that aside, and it comes down to the fact that this is (was?) the one easy thing I could do to nourish my family.

If your family drinks milk the way we drink milk, AND WE DRINK MILK (upwards of 2 gallons a week), it is one thing I can buy that we all love that I feel is nourishing their bodies and protecting them from all the other junk they eat in a given day. There are lots of other things I can feed them that are nourishing and wholesome, but none as easy (or perhaps as tasty) as a glass of raw milk.

On the one hand, eating anything is a gamble. I have to believe that it’s a lot riskier for my kids to eat an occasional McDonalds Happy Meal than it is for them to drink raw milk every day of their lives.

And yet. We didn’t get sick from McDonalds. Or spinach. Or cantaloupe. We got sick from raw milk. So whether or not it makes logical sense, we have decided to stop drinking it. For now, anyway. (And yes, we still eat bagged spinach and cantaloupe. But we wash it REALLY REALLY well.) And I literally cringe and pray any time we give our kids fast food, which is a very rare occurrence.

We are lucky. It’s been two weeks since we came down with the symptoms of the campylobacter, and the kids are fine. In fact, they got over it fairly quickly — they were only down for 3 or 4 days. I suffered the worst, which is ironic because I drank the least of it. My kids drink milk like candy. I probably had one, MAYBE two cups out of the entire gallon. But I guess my temperamental gut had more difficulty expelling the bacteria than my kids’ healthy bodies did. But I’m on the mend and feeling better every day.

So why am I telling you all this? 

I admit, I was tempted to quietly move on with my life. But I am telling you because you deserve to know. One of the arguments I made to myself when justifying the remote risk of drinking raw milk was, if people were getting sick off of it, I would hear about it. RIGHT? I know so many people that drink raw milk and no one has ever mentioned getting sick from it. If I didn’t tell you this, after all the posts I’ve written extolling the virtues of raw milk, it would be dishonest.

Some of you drink raw milk. Most of you probably don’t. But if you do, you should know, that even if you have a farmer that you trust, you can still get sick. Maybe you will keep drinking it. Maybe I should too. I don’t know. It is not a right-or-wrong issue. Ultimately I believe that eating food in its simplest form is generally best practice, but these days that’s easier said than done.

Of all the awesome benefits that come along with our modern industrial society, keeping our food simple is not one of them. I can’t go out back and milk a cow and drink fresh, clean milk. If I could, this decision would be simple. Instead, I have to depend on a whole production team to maintain perfect standards of cleanliness to keep that delicate, live food safe. And I have to admit, my confidence in that system has been shattered.

That said, I do not harbor any resentment towards the farm or their family. They are good people trying their best to make available to their customers the same wholesome, nourishing foods that they produce and feed their own family. I knew there was a risk involved, and I took that risk knowingly. I take full responsibility.

The farm will continue to produce and sell raw milk. It is legal to do so in Pennsylvania, and they did nothing wrong. It was a mistake, one that they have agonized over, and hopefully one that will not be repeated.

As for my family? We will have a good source of local, organic, grass-fed, PASTEURIZED milk available that we will be buying (for now).

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I welcome thoughtful and respectful comments, on either side of this issue. I view this blog like my living room. If you wouldn’t say it to your good friend while sipping tea in her living room, please don’t say it here. Rude comments will be deleted.

UPDATE 2/8/12
I’ve decided to close comments on this post. I believe that everything there is to say has been said, several times over. I appreciate the thought and concern that went into your comments, and I value each and every one.