Raw milk? No, thanks

Milk comes from cows who live on picturesque farms and spend their days contentedly grazing in lush pastures while clouds float overhead in a pure blue sky.

Who doesn’t have wholesome images of milk? Perhaps if we could do away with all those artificial processes such as pasteurization, we could drink fresh raw milk straight from the cow and be healthier for it.

This seems to be the thinking of raw-milk enthusiasts who have apparently gained the ear of some Minnesota legislators.

Minnesota Public Radio reported today that three state senators have proposed legalizing most sales of raw milk in Minnesota. The measure would allow unpasteurized milk to be sold directly to consumers with minimal restrictions, meaning they could buy it in a variety of settings such as farmer’s markets and people’s homes. Under current law, raw milk can only be sold at the farm where it was produced.

I’m at a loss to see why we would want to make it easier for consumers to buy a product that comes with clear, documented health risks. People need look no further than Gibbon in southern Minnesota, where raw milk sold at a dairy farm was linked last year to at least eight cases of E. coli, three cases of Campylobacter and four cases of cryptosporidium. Those stricken included a child who developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can lead to kidney failure and is sometimes fatal.

This was not an isolated incident. After the state Health Department began investigating the outbreak traced to the Gibbon farm, 47 other reports of illnesses linked to the consumption of raw milk were identifed across the state. Most of them involved children and young adults.

Those in the raw-milk camp believe unpasteurized milk has special health benefits. But a review published a couple of years ago in the Clinical Infectious Diseases journal found no scientific proof to support this. Indeed, the risks clearly outweighed any anecdotal evidence to the contrary.

Don’t just take my word for it. See what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have to say about unpasteurized milk.

For those who think milk producers and consumers should be allowed to decide for themselves whether to take the risk, consider this: Many of those who’ve been sickened by raw milk have been children who aren’t in a position to make an informed decision. Minnesota health officials also are concerned that people may be consuming raw milk without knowing, or without understanding, what they’re getting. On top of this, a rather alarming report this week from the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that raw milk, raw milk cheeses and ground beef appear to be prime carriers of antibiotic-resistant pathogens, with implications for the safety of the entire food system.

If anything, the Minnesota Legislature should be looking at more, rather than less, regulation of raw milk sales.

It’s still early in the session and this issue may end up going nowhere. But it’s baffling that it would even be proposed, in view of the many foodborne disease outbreaks the U.S. has experienced in recent years and increasing public health concerns about food safety.

Wait, there’s more. Legislation also was introduced this week to undo part of the 2007 Freedom to Breathe Act, allowing Minnesotans to smoke in bars once again and expose employees and customers to the hazards of secondhand smoke.

The state may be facing some challenging times, but you’d think we could at least try to maintain the status quo. Instead we appear to be headed for a couple of steps backwards in the quality-of-life department.

It’s starting to look as if the biggest risk to Minnesotans’ health right now is under the roof of the state Capitol.

West Central Tribune file photo

Divided opinions on medical marijuana

West Central Tribune readers are weighing in on coverage of a medical marijuana bill making its way through the Minnesota Legislature. Judging from the responses, sentiments are similar to public opinion in the rest of the U.S.: Most people favor making the drug legal for medical use.

For anyone who’s interested in reading the entire bill, the House version can be found here and the Senate version here.

This issue has been on legislators’ radar screens for the past few years. This year it seems to be gaining considerable traction, probably due to a combination of public support and to lobbying efforts by groups such as the Marijuana Policy Project. Clearly there’s a lot of muscle behind this effort; tax statements indicate the MPP is at least a $4 million organization.

It’s also pretty hard to argue with firsthand stories from patients, such as this advertising video that was making the rounds last year.

Of particular note: The Obama administration has said it won’t aggressively enforce federal drug violations for medical marijuana use in states where such use is legal. This policy shift may be making medical marijuana laws more palatable – and possibly easier to pass – in states where medical marijuana proposals are under consideration.

Popular opinion notwithstanding, the scientific basis for using marijuana as medicine is not especially strong.

For a closer look at the medical application of marijuana, here’s a 2007 report prepared by the American Medical Association’s Council on Scientific Affairs. While it doesn’t take a stand one way or the other on legalization, it notes that there’s a shortage of sound data on the medical safety and effectiveness of marijuana, and calls for more research.

Perhaps the most in-depth study was conducted by the Institute of Medicine in the late 1990s. According to the authors,

The accumulated data indicate a potential therapeutic value for cannabinoid drugs, particularly for symptoms such as pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation… The effects of cannabinoids on the symptoms studied are generally modest, and in most cases there are more effective medications. However, people vary in their responses to medications, and there will likely always be a subpopulation of patients who do not respond well to other medications.

The IOM’s recommendation was similar to that of the AMA: further study to determine clinical effectiveness and safety.