Perceptions of Raw Milk’s Risks and Benefits (Research Brief #83)

Raw milk for human consumption that has not been pasteurized1 is a controversial product. Wisconsin laws prohibit non-incidental sales of raw milk to consumers2, although the law allows farmers, employees and their guests to consume raw milk. Unpasteurized milk may contain pathogens such as Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, Campylobacter and disease-causing strains of Escherichia coli, which can lead to serious illness. Nonetheless, a study led by researchers Özlem Alt?ok and Michael Bell of the UW-Madison Department of Community and Environmental Sociology found that customers cite improving their health among the top reasons for drinking raw milk. A growing number of consumers feel that pasteurization robs milk of some of its nutritional and health benefits.

From September 2005 through June 2007, the researchers used participant observation and in-depth interviews to investigate why people drink raw milk despite health warnings. The study was conducted primarily in Wisconsin; as individual states have unique laws governing in-state sales of raw milk, some fieldwork and interviews took place in other states. This work was supported by HATCH and a Community and Environmental Sociology departmental grant.

Altiok and Bell surveyed 12 consumers who had purchased raw milk and 13 farmers who had sold raw milk. They interviewed male and female consumers with diverse economic and social status, group affiliations and levels of involvement with raw milk advocacy networks. They also interviewed six representatives of nonprofit organizations (such as the Weston A. Price Foundation and the Family Farm Defenders) that promote sustainable eating and farming practices. These representatives could speak to their personal beliefs about raw milk and also the organizations’ positions, if they had any, on raw milk consumption or sales. The researchers hoped this diversity would shed light on the question of why people drink raw milk and how they perceive its risks.

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