Hey, When Raw Milk Data Don’t Go Your Way, Try Some Gymnastics, Like CDC Does; Another Look at Harvard Debate

During the raw milk debate at Harvard Law School last Thursday, I criticized our opponents for their failure to present data, as in real understandable numbers.

I had gone to the trouble of analyzing data from official statistics provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control–supposedly the gold standard of foodborne illness data. (Some of what I presented was CDC data extracted by the MarlerClark firm, certainly no friend of raw milk.)  I found that, over the last decade, between 25 and 175 individuals have been reported ill each year from raw milk. Moreover, I found that the number of illnesses is generally in the vicinity of .5% (one-half of one per cent) of the total number of 23,000-25,000 foodborne illnesses reported each year. (The preceding link goes to the 2008 number, the most recent reported, and that number is down on the order of 1,000 or more from the immediately preceding years.) That’s a very small percentage, given that 3% of the population has been found, by the CDC, to be drinking raw milk.

Why wouldn’t the opponents comment on the numbers I had compiled from CDC data, or present numbers of their own? For a very good reason. The numbers suggest that because raw milk contributes such a miniscule proportion of all reported foodborne illnesses, it’s nothing approaching a significant public health problem.

So what do you do if it gets embarrassing to ignore the numbers? If you’re a good bureaucratic number cruncher, you raise a lot of dust and say, “He went thataway!” In other words, you distort and distract, you do anything to avoid discussing the truth.

That is what the CDC did yesterday in publishing a study assessing illnesses from raw and pasteurized dairy over the 14 years of 1993-2006. “Nonpasteurized products caused a disproportionate number (≈150× greater/unit of product consumed) of outbreaks and outbreak-associated illnesses,” it concluded in its abstract.

I would be content to ignore these ideologues, except the major media pick up on such pronouncements, coming as they do from the august CDC, the place where all things concerning the science of health are validated. Here’s how USA Today led off its article on the study: “Unpasteurized milk, touted as the ultimate health food by some, is 150 times more likely to cause food-borne illness outbreaks than pasteurized milk…”

What’s the problem with this “study”? Because the most important number, the number of illnesses, doesn’t prove CDC’s point that raw milk is terribly dangerous, it pulls the old switcheroo–it focuses on “outbreaks.” It’s long been known, and acknowledged all around, that there are more raw milk outbreaks than pasteurized milk outbreaks. But when there are pasteurized milk outbreaks, they can be doozies. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were pasteurized milk outbreaks affecting tens of thousands of people. One in 1994 sickened 224,000 people who ate pasteurized-cream ice cream. The true cause was never pinpointed–whether it was the cream or the eggs. That outbreak doesn’t seem to have made it into Langer’s study. I also don’t see mention of a 2006 outbreak in which 1,300 California prisoners were sickened by pasteurized milk.  

Indeed, Langer whitewashes illnesses from pasteurized milk–those were flukes, it was the consumer’s fault, the food handlers’ fault. Excuses, excuses. He says of illnesses from pasteurized milk that “at least 4 (57%) probably resulted from post-pasteurization contamination by an infected food handler. Failure of the consumer to store the dairy product at an appropriate temperature probably contributed to 3 other outbreaks. Such temperature abuse can enable pathogens (present because they either survived pasteurization in low numbers or were introduced after pasteurization) to multiply to concentrations capable of causing illness.” I love it. “Temperature abuse.” Is that akin child abuse?

The important number–the number of illnesses–is buried deep in the CDC study. That number is 1,571 illnesses attributed to raw dairy over the 14 years of the study. It works out to an average of 112 per year. As I said, there are between 25 and 175 reported illnesses each year.

I actually wrote about the lead author, Adam Langer, a few years ago, when he came up with this truly perceptive insight: In states that prohibit raw milk, there are fewer illnesses from raw milk than in states that allow raw milk. As I wrote at the time, you’d likely have the same phenomenon with any foods–ban deli meats in one state and you’ll have fewer illnesses from deli meats than in another state where they’re allowed. This bizarre insight is one of Langer’s key conclusions for this latest paper.

It’s supposed to be about safety, but we see yet again that it’s really about politics and propaganda. Don’t know why I’m always surprised. Guess I just had it drilled into me too many times that the CDC cares about the science.

The Boston Globe has a nice wrapup of last week’s raw milk debate. It doesn’t take a stand, just reports the facts, along with good atmosphere and nice photos.

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16 Comments on "Hey, When Raw Milk Data Don’t Go Your Way, Try Some Gymnastics, Like CDC Does; Another Look at Harvard Debate"

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February 22, 2012 11:29 pm

I'd posted the following on the previous article, so am reposting it here:

Here's a long but interesting 2001 article about British cheesemakers under threat from over-regulation, which corresponds with raw milk here in the U.S.:

For example:
"EU regulation imposes a `zero tolerance' for Listeria monocytogenes in cheese but it does not apply to other foods such as pates, meats and salads. However, it is the consumption of meat products that contributes to the majority of food poisonings. … This is even more surprising in the view of the fact that `several countries have concluded that the complete absence of Listeria… Read more »

February 23, 2012 1:07 am

David-can you cite the reference for the 23,000-25,000 cases of foodborne illness. I am interested in looking at these further.

The Complete Patient
February 23, 2012 1:25 am


Try this. It's the 2008 total, down on the order of 1,000 or more from immediately preceding years:



Mark McAfee
February 23, 2012 7:33 am

Great job David, I enjoyed your talk and you guys did a wonderful job defending and defining the raw milk market situation / condition etc….

At the end of the day…the data lies told and spun by the CDC are lies. Just lies. Lies are very interesting, they turn on their tellers. In fact ….they turn very badly on their tellers and the truth of the dollar voting markets never lie.

OPDC sales are a barometer of the truth. People learn of the truth through their own experience and they know it as the truth. It is their experience and… Read more »

The Complete Patient
February 23, 2012 7:56 am

Thank you, Mark.

I agree with you about lies. They also make people ever more cynical about their government. They may not expect truth from politicians, but they hope against hope that scientists charged with overseeing public health are being honest and straightforward. To see them repeatedly resort to data distortions, essentially lies, for propaganda purposes is depressing. Like you say, it will come back to bite them at some point when they are trying to communicate serious important information, and people have stopped believing them.


Sylvia Gibson
February 23, 2012 8:21 am

"They may not expect truth from politicians, but they hope against hope that scientists charged with overseeing public health are being honest and straightforward."

So true. The lawyer just regurgitated the govts same old stories. Where does he get off saying we don't have the right to consume what we want? If I was sitting a jury, he would not have even remotely swayed me to listen to his side….He was not impressive and I would not choose him if I needed a lawyer.

This really didn't appear to be a debate to me, nothing new… Read more »

Milky Way
February 23, 2012 11:52 am

Regarding the debate, the data wins. Take a deep, cold drink of your raw milk. The data shows you have a Campyobacter problem going back decades, and since the 2000's you have an E. coli 0157 problem (independent of Listeria in pasteurized milk or melons – that's their problem).

The raw milk industry has a Campylobacter and E.coli O157 problem.

What are you going to do to address it? The government isn't going to fix it.

Spin it? The customers made sick will be your downfall – free market…


February 23, 2012 12:20 pm


I have not had an opportunity to look at the paper you are basing your statistics on, but your calculations are clearly wrong.

You stated that there is on average 112 cases/year of foodborne illness due to raw milk consumption and there is a total of 23,000 total cases of foodborne illness annually in the US.

112 divided by 23,000 is approximately .005, you need to multiply by 100 to make it a percentage. So using your numbers, the percent of raw cases is about 0.5%.

Gordon Watson
February 23, 2012 1:11 pm

excellent point, Milky Way

setting aside the fact that Dr Ted Beals' analysis came to a very different conclusion, using the same DC numbers as the CDC, I do agree that the govt. isn't going to fix it. Because they're part of the problem

George Jonas is doing some brilliant writing lately in the National Post. He brings to it, his experience growing up under communism in Hungary. A column entitled the Protection Racket / gun control, about Ian Thomson who drove off 3 men intent on fire-bombing his home, by firing a shot in… Read more »

The Complete Patient
February 23, 2012 8:36 pm

You are correct. I stated it that way in the debate (one-half of one per cent), but didn't write it correctly above. I've corrected it.

Milky Way,
You make a good point. There's an inconsistency here, though. The chicken industry has a much worse campylobacter and salmonella problem (on the order of 60% or more of all chicken is contaminated, according to Consumer Reports surveys, and chicken is a leading cause of illness, according to CDC data), yet we don't see chicken producers being arrested, or their plants shut down. I don't know what government is doing on that… Read more »

Sylvia Gibson
February 24, 2012 4:26 am


"Director at the Department of Agriculture said the pulse-field gel electrophoresis, or genetic fingerprint, of the bacteria found in the Oct. 12 sample "did not match the PFGE pattern for those persons who became ill."

Brunton Dairy is facing two lawsuits filed in Allegheny County Court by individuals who said they became sick after consuming the dairy's products."

A "match" wasn't needed in 2006 for OP…..so these people will be getting the equivalent, right?

"but officials refused to comment on what had caused the contamination."

Why keep it a secret?


Why is there a need… Read more »

Dave Milano
February 24, 2012 4:56 am


I really liked your opening statement in the debate, and found Pritzkers, umm, interesting.

Its common practice to lead with ones perceived strength, and Pritzker did exactly that when he described his position as a response to facts. Facts are indeed a tremendous sales tool. The problem, of course, is that facts often arent.

Facts have a nasty habit of changing over time, and are sensitive to subjective analysis. And as anyone who has stepped unwittingly into deep water knows, there is a pretty wide truth/baloney continuum associated with facts. This is especially in evolving science (and all good science is… Read more »

Chef Jem
February 25, 2012 7:08 pm

The New Medicine acknowledges the interconnectedness between psyche-brain-body as a whole integrated organism. What appears to us as "disease" is revealed in this paradigm as an intelligent biological program. The program is immediately launched by the subconscious upon the sudden, unexpected shock conflict that catches the individual off guard. A shock conflict of this type can happen when a doctor delivers a diagnosis and/or a prognosis to their patient. The patient may consequently have a death-fright conflict.

I suspect that other individuals who assume any god-like authoritative positions in the world can also be the cause of… Read more »

David Burla
March 4, 2012 4:59 am

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That includes criminal ways for mass De-population,
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Like poisoning air, food, water… Read more »

David Burla
March 4, 2012 5:01 am


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People are suffering and people are dying,
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Blame Banksters, Politicians and Corporations,
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They plan… Read more »

David Burla
March 4, 2012 5:02 am


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Poem 1, Version 7
Jan. 2012


Americans will always remember,
The eleventh day of September,
When devils… Read more »