A refresher course in the work of Louis Pasteur should be mandatory for advocates of so-called raw milk.
For anyone who missed fourth-grade science, Pasteur discovered that heating milk for a very brief time killed E. coli, salmonella, listeria, campylobacter and a stew of other bacteria that can cause serious or fatal diseases, especially in children.
Nonetheless, an alliance has formed to advance legislation requiring state and federal regulators to end many of the restrictions on unpasteurized milk sales. It's an unlikely marriage at that, combining the more ardent foes of industrialized farming with the anti-government wing of the political right.
Those promoting raw milk claim - in the face of scientific evidence to the contrary - that pasteurizing milk destroys proteins, enzymes and vitamins that prevent allergies, asthma, even cancer. Of course, there is no proof of this, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, raw and pasteurized milk are nutritionally indistinguishable.
In Washington, the legislative push is led by those opposed to what they see as overreach by the Food and Drug Administration. Among them is Thomas Massie, a Republican congressman from Kentucky, who says he grew up on a farm drinking unpasteurized milk and suffered no ill effects. Massie last month introduced two bills that would prevent the FDA from blocking interstate sales of raw milk.
Bills in 23 states have also been introduced that would ease or legalize sales of raw milk. Ten states allow sales to the public, and several others let consumers buy milk from farms or obtain it if they join programs in which they own a share of a herd.
What's puzzling is why there's even a debate about a product that poses so much risk. It isn't as if Pasteur wasn't onto something. He understood that milk in its unpasteurized state offers ideal conditions for infectious agents to multiple. Nor was he just imagining that throughout history people had been sickened and killed by tainted milk. As the CDC notes, before widespread pasteurization, "raw milk was a common source of the bacteria that cause tuberculosis, diphtheria, severe streptococcal infections, typhoid fever, and other food borne illnesses."
Pasteurized milk products can still cause illness, although it tends to be less severe. However, unpasteurized dairy products are about 150 times more likely to make someone sick than the pasteurized equivalent, according to a 2012 study.
Children are particularly susceptible to infection from unpasteurized dairy products. Writing in the Daily Beast, Russell Saunders, a doctor, says that in addition to barring his kids from playing tackle football and riding motorcycles, he would never let them drink raw milk. He came to this conclusion while in medical school after seeing a child in the intensive-care unit on a ventilator with multiple organ failure. The child had consumed unpasteurized milk and developed hemolytic-uremic syndrome, an intestinal infection that produces toxins that destroy red blood cells and damage the kidneys.
You wouldn't know anything about such risks from reading the literature of raw milk proponents.
"So powerful is the anti-microbial system in raw milk that when large quantities of pathogens are added to raw milk, their numbers diminish over time and eventually disappear," according to the website of Real Milk, which touts raw milk as "nature's perfect food."
This is a dubious assertion, based, presumably, on the properties of two minor milk proteins. One exhibits antibacterial activity when purified, the other when combined with other agents. In reality, raw milk is no elixir but rather an effective mechanism for transferring infectious bacteria to the human digestive tract.
James Greiff is a Bloomberg View editor.