Raw Milk

Raw milk is milk from cows, goats, sheep, or other animals that has not been pasteurized. Pasteurization is the process of heating milk to a high enough temperature for a long enough time to kill illness-causing bacteria contained in the milk.

Risks of Drinking Raw Milk

Raw milk can carry harmful bacteria and other germs that can make you very sick and even kill you. While it is possible to get foodborne illnesses from many different foods, raw milk is one of the riskiest of all.

Getting sick from raw milk can cause diarrhea, bloody diarrhea, stomach cramping, and vomiting. Less commonly, it can lead to meningitis, kidney failure, paralysis, chronic disorders, and even death. Symptoms of illness can differ depending on the type of germ in the milk.

A wide variety of germs that are sometimes found in raw milk can make people sick, including bacteria such as Brucella, Campylobacter, Listeria, Salmonella, shiga toxin-producing E. coli (such as E. coli O157), Yersinia, and Mycobacterium bovis (a cause of tuberculosis).

As of early April 2024, highly pathogenic avian influenza virus (HPAI) has been found in dairy cattle and milk in several states. We do not have any confirmed, infected cows in Washington at this time. While routine milk pasteurization removes bacteria and viruses like HPAI, raw milk products do not share that level of protection. See FDA's Milk Safety During HPAI Outbreaks. The situation continues to change and other states may see infected herds. For more information, visit the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service News and Updates.

People at Risk

Any person of any age can get very sick or even die if they drink raw milk contaminated with harmful germs. The risk is greater for infants and young children, the elderly, and pregnant women. People with weakened immune systems, such as people with cancer, an organ transplant, or HIV/AIDS, are also at greater risk.

Illness Outbreaks

Raw milk can cause serious infections. Raw milk and products such as cheeses and yogurts that are made with raw milk can be contaminated with harmful germs that can cause serious illness, hospitalization, or death.

From 1998 through 2009, 93 outbreaks due to consuming raw milk or raw milk products were reported to CDC. These resulted in 1,837 illnesses, 195 hospitalizations, and 2 deaths.

In Washington State, from 2005 through 2012, there have been seven outbreaks linked to raw milk or raw milk cheese products. These outbreaks were caused by shiga toxin-producing E. coli (6) and Campylobacter (1), and resulted in 53 illnesses.

Because not all cases of foodborne illness are recognized and reported, the actual number of illnesses associated with raw milk likely is greater.

Questions and Answers

Aren't raw or natural foods better than processed foods?

Many people believe that foods with no or minimal processing are better for their health. However, some types of processing are needed to protect our health. For example, consumers process raw meat, raw poultry, and raw fish for safety by cooking. When milk is pasteurized, it is heated just long enough to kill disease-causing germs. All significant nutrients remain after milk is pasteurized. There are many local, small farms that offer pasteurized organic milk and cheese products.

Does drinking raw milk prevent or cure any diseases, such as asthma, allergies, heart disease, or cancer?

No. There are no health benefits from drinking raw milk that cannot be obtained from drinking pasteurized milk. The process of pasteurization of milk has never been found to be the cause of chronic diseases, allergies, or developmental or behavioral problems.

I know people who have been drinking raw milk for years, and they never got sick. Why is that?

The presence of germs in raw milk is unpredictable. Illness can occur from the same brand and source of raw milk that people had been drinking for a long time without becoming ill. The number of disease-causing germs in the raw milk may be too low to make a person sick for a long time, and later are high enough to make the same person seriously ill. For some people, drinking contaminated raw milk just once could make them really sick.

Even if you trust the farmer and your store, raw milk is never a guaranteed safe product. Drinking raw milk means taking a real risk of getting very sick.

More Resources

Raw Milk, CDC

Dangers of Raw Milk, FDA

Raw Milk Sales in Washington, WSDA (PDF)


Content Source: Food Safety Program