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Globe Editorial

State shouldn’t be cowed by raw-milk aficionados

A raw-milk proponent allowed his cow to graze on Boston Common during a rally. A raw-milk proponent allowed his cow to graze on Boston Common during a rally. (Steven Senne/Associated Press)
May 22, 2010

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IF A tiny but passionate minority of milk drinkers prefer it straight from the cow, it’s their choice, and their risk. But Massachusetts shouldn’t expend any public resources to enable broader consumption of raw milk.

By law, only pasteurized milk can be sold in stores. Raw-milk buffs argue, though, that pasteurization makes milk less nutritious by killing good bacteria as well as bad. Many buy from the 27 dairy farms in the state licensed to produce unpasteurized milk for sale on the farm — but not in stores. Others have joined together in loose networks to distribute the milk; some use their own cars, others hire commercial trucks.

The state has blown the whistle on these networks, arguing — with good reason — that the delivery vehicles meet no sanitary standards and undergo no inspections. Raw-milk fans have protested, and some have suggested that the state could solve the problem by inspecting the commercial trucks. But at a time of shrunken public resources, why go to any lengths to accommodate a scant few raw-milk drinkers — just so they can more easily consume what state health officials consider a “high-risk product’’?

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, raw milk is just 1 to 3 percent of all milk sold in this country. But it, or products made from it, causes 68 to 71 percent of all dairy-related illnesses. Raw-milk advocates attribute these problems to unpasteurized milk from unlicensed dairies and say there have been no outbreaks linked to milk from the state’s licensed raw-milk farms in the 17 years since the state started allowing such sales.

Still, there is no denying that pasteurization protects against the rogues’ gallery of germs found in raw milk or its products: E. coli, listeria, salmonella, campylobacter, and brucella. Illnesses caused by these germs are dangerous to pregnant women, children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems. As for advocates’ claim that pasteurizing milk reduces its nutritional value, the US Food and Drug Administration says this is simply not true.

By restricting raw-milk sales to licensed farms, the state can at least isolate the source of any outbreak. Creating a new licensing and inspection system to keep track of such milk and ensure its safety once it leaves the dairy is a burden the state should be spared.

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