By Tony Federico
Raw milk is nothing new. From the first domesticated herd of Aurochs (the ancestor of modern cattle) that emerged in the Middle East approximately 10,000 years ago, humans have benefited from both the meat and milk provided by cows. However, the process of pasteurization is a relatively recent invention. In the late 1800s the acceptance of “Germ Theory” by the scientific community revealed the existence, and health consequences, of bacteria and other micro-organisms. Now, the vast majority of milk sold in the United States is pasteurized, but there is a growing movement to bring back raw milk.
Advocates say that raw milk is healthier than “cooked” milk and that it is safe to drink, especially when cows are raised on pasture. Opponents of raw milk say that there is no scientific evidence to back up the health claims of raw milk and that it is unsafe to drink. Both sides are fervent in their beliefs, and the issue has even seen SWAT-Team raids on raw-milk producers and buying clubs. For Mary McGonigle-Martin, however, the issue is deeply personal.
We sat down with Mary to discuss her story and to find out more about her take on the raw milk debate.
For those who haven’t read your article “Raw Milk – A Mother’s Story”, could you share why you are speaking out against raw milk?
I had been trying to figure out a diet for my son, Chris, who was diagnosed with ADD (non-hyperactive Attention Deficit Disorder) when he was in kindergarten. We changed things and saw some improvement, but it still wasn’t all gone. One of the things that always stood out to me was that dairy was indicated in the literature as a big offender for kids with ADD.
There were reports that claimed that if you removed dairy, a lot of the ADD symptoms would improve, but my son basically ate only wheat and dairy! He was and is, a very picky eater, so I couldn’t imagine taking dairy out of his diet. I was able to swap many of his favorite wheat products for gluten-free versions, but I left the dairy. He would have things like yogurt, cheese, pizza, macaroni and cheese, and organic pasteurized milk. Anything with cheese!
When he was in 2nd grade, our health food store began carrying raw milk. I live in California, so you could buy it right at the store. I just walked in one day, and they had large signs advertising the milk along with information that recommended it for digestive problems, lactose intolerance, asthma, and allergies. I was not new to raw milk; in my late teens/early twenties, I drank raw milk and ate raw cheese because I had read that it was better for you. Like now, the idea was that pasteurizing the milk killed the good things in the milk. Back then, Altadena Dairy sold it, but there was an outbreak and it was off the shelves. Well 20 years later, it was back.
Chris was experiencing a lot of congestion all the time and I was convinced that it was from consuming dairy products. I thought, “Wow, maybe that (raw milk) would be the solution”. Back then I shopped every week on Friday, so I bought a quart of milk to see if he liked it. The next week I bought another quart, and on the third week I went ahead and bought a ½ gallon. That was the one that was contaminated with a pathogen.
How serious was Chris’s food poisoning?
He literally almost died. The thing he escaped was it affecting his brain as well. For a few days after drinking the milk he was just lethargic and we just thought he had a bug, but then the diarrhea and vomiting started, and then blood showed up. We decided to take him to the emergency room because he was in a lot of pain. He was having bowel movements every 15-30 minutes for 5 days straight. From there, he developed hemolytic-uremic-syndrome which is a red blood cell disorder.
Chris was infected with E.Coli 0157:H7 and when the bacteria dies off, it releases shiga toxin. It is this toxin that damages the body, and in particular, it attacks cells in the pancreas, kidneys, and brain. The red blood cells start dying and they clog the kidneys which leads to acute kidney failure. Then, as the red blood cells continue to die, the pancreas can become affected.
Chris did not eat for two months, he could not digest anything. He was in the hospital on a ventilator and he had seizures. When his kidneys stopped working, he filled up with fluid and couldn’t breath and had congestive heart failure, and had chest tubes to drain the fluid out. Chris was on dialysis for 18 days, on a ventilator for 9 days. Most kids die in the first week because the shiga toxins are being released and you don’t know where they are going to attack.
How is your son now?
For someone who was as ill as he was, a miracle happened for him. Marler & Clark, the attorneys that represented us, have had lots of similar cases involving food-borne illness, and they have not had a case as severe as Chris’s with such a good outcome. We were blessed for some reason. There was another little girl who drank the same raw milk as Chris and who was in the same children’s hospital. She now has stage-1 kidney disease and in her lifetime she will need a kidney transplant.
So you had a lawsuit against the dairy who sold the raw milk?
The way the liability laws are written in California is very strict, so the health food store where we bought the milk as well as the store where the other family bought the milk as well as the dairy were involved in the suit. I can’t discuss any details, but we did win a settlement.
How did you start sharing your story?
Bill Marler, the attorney that represented us has a lot to do with giving me the opportunity to share my story. He developed the website RealRawMilkFacts.com after we attended a vetrinary conference in in 2009. They had speakers who discussed the pros and cons of raw milk, and we wanted to put something out there that would counter the misinformation that is being put out about raw milk. I’m a member of the “working group” for the site that includes a mix of people in public health and academia as well as raw milk supporters.
There are raw milk drinkers involved in RealRawMilkFacts.com?
Yes, because it is really about disseminating correct information, not polarizing this this as a “black & white” issue. The site is about presenting information about pasteurization as well as raw milk, so it is basically a clearinghouse for information on the subject. There are videos on there from families who have been represented by Bill Marler. There are 5 families profiled, including my own. Three of the cases involve children and two involve adult victims.
Some people may suspect that you are involved with the conventional dairy industry, could you speak to that concern?
I am not paid by anybody. I am not affiliated with anyone in the dairy industry paying me to come out and share my story. What motivates me is the misinformation that is put out by the leaders in the raw milk movement. Particularly the Weston A. Price (WAP) foundation. They are a group that feels very strongly about access to raw milk, and in 1999, when the WAP was founded, they made it their goal to have raw milk access in every state without regulation.
It is a very grassroots organization and there are chapters in each state. It’s an eclectic group, with people that have been ill, people who have changed their diet, maybe families who have had sick children like us. There is a set of information, like “The Untold Story of Milk” that is spread around like it is the truth, but there is a lot of misinformation.
That misinformation motivates me because we’re living in a day and age where there are a lot of scary pathogens out there. When someone is producing raw milk, milking their cows twice a day, it is very likely that fecal matter can get into the supply. Raw milk is a high risk food because the pathogens in the fecal matter could kill you.
Are you aware of any statistics regarding food poisoning from raw dairy consumption?
We all know that statistics can be twisted any way we want, so “statistics” is a very loaded word. First of all, how many raw dairy drinkers are there? We don’t know how many people are consuming raw milk, but we know that is a low percentage of the population, especially compared to other foods. Let’s just say 1-3% of Americans are drinking raw milk, so it’s a low percentage of people consuming it, but if we are still having serious outbreaks, I say we have a problem. This is a food that is being promoted as a healing food to be consumed by infants, children, and pregnant women.
So you’re saying that the relatively low number of raw milk drinkers versus the number of outbreaks makes this a more serious issue than foodborne illness from other crops/foods such as melons, spinach or meat?
Right. If you look at the outbreaks that are happening out there, leafy greens, meat, chicken, when you’re dealing with that, how many people are out there consuming it? It’s mass produced food. Compare that to the small number of people who are producing and drinking raw milk, and when you have an outbreak, how many people are getting sick?
Right now, there are cases going on in Missouri and these kids are in the hospital with kidney failure because they consumed a food that they thought was healthy. Nobody is out there eating a hamburger thinking that it is going to cure them of a disease.
Do you think that part of the problem is the aura of healthfulness that is given to raw milk? Do you think that this prevents people from making straightforward “costs vs benefits” analysis?
Raw milk is treated like a magic food. We would never say, “Oh, I’m going to eat my chicken raw because it’s natural.” We don’t encourage that, but somehow, with milk, we’re quick to believe that raw is better. I’m not talking about the homogenization, ultrapasteurization, CAFOs, and all that. I support farms that are loving their animals, feeding them grass, but you can still cook that milk to prevent the pathogens from being there, just like you would cook your meat.
In your opinion, are there any benefits from raw dairy that are absent from pasteurized products?
There are people out there that drink raw milk and experience an improvement in their health, their symptoms go away. My question is, is it because they are drinking raw milk, or, is it because they are no longer drinking store-bought homogenized pasteurized milk? We don’t know if the improvements are from drinking the milk raw, or from some other factor. If I bought raw milk, brought it home, and pasteurized it myself, would I still see the same benefits?
So the complex nature of milk (varying hormone levels, types of casein, etc.) make it difficult to pin down the benefits of raw milk?
When somebody starts following WAP, they are changing their complete diet! How can they say it’s the raw milk when they are also not eating processed food anymore. I don’t know anyone who didn’t change anything about their diet and just started drinking raw milk. The majority of them have also altered their diet in other healthy ways too.
There isn’t anything, there is no health benefit that raw milk can give you that outweighs the pathogens that might be in milk. There are many cultures that don’t eat milk products and are very healthy.
Did you ever experiment with home pasteurization?
I never tried that because we eventually had my son tested for food sensitivities and he tested positive for the casein in milk. What that means is when he digests milk, his brain recognizes it as an opiate and it puts him in a fog. We’ve now removed all dairy from his diet and he is doing much better.
You proposed a warning label for raw milk, how did you decide on this solution?
I feel like a warning label would level the playing field. There is a lot of misinformation out there about raw milk and people say things like “if you know your farmer the milk is safe,” “raw milk kills pathogens”, “grass fed cows don’t harbor pathogens”, but they don’t talk about the pathogens that can be found in raw milk. Having a label on the bottle allows you to make an informed decision. You are not making an informed decision when you only have the WAP side of the story.
Your whole story started from a desire to help your son’s health, and specifically his ADD symptoms, through diet, how is he doing right now?
I say he’s about 90% improved. He gets all A’s in school and hasn’t been sick or missed a day of school this year, for the first time ever. He even does all his homework on his own. When he was in elementary school I had to work really closely with the teachers to get his assignments. He is in 7th grade now, and I haven’t even shared with his teachers that he has ADD. I don’t know if he even has “ADD” anymore.
Could you describe his current diet and how well you’re able to have him stick with it?
Since he was in kindergarten, when he ate foods that disagreed with him, my way of handling it would be to say, “See what happened? You ate that and this is how you feel now.” The blessing in disguise is that he is such a picky eater, so it was easy for me to change him over to foods that were “mimics” of his favorites. For example, he’ll still have his hot dog, but now it will be an applegate farms all-natural hot dog.
For breakfast, I’ll typically make him either gluten-free pancakes or eggs with gluten free bread. We juice every day, so he gets a lot of his vegetables by drinking them, although he does eat a salad every day. I do a lot of cooking at home and make gluten-free cupcakes and things like that if he wants a treat. He doesn’t eat fast food. Wherever we go, I bring his food. He loves what he does eat, so he doesn’t “cheat”. The whole family eats all organic and juices everyday, and we don’t do any dairy, so we’re all on board.
If there is one thing that you could say to a parent considering giving raw milk to their family or child, what would that be?
When you do your research, you need to know about all the pathogens that can show up in raw milk. You need to know every illness that these pathogens can cause. Like with my son, e.coli infection can lead to brain damage and other very serious things. Once you know those pathogens, and you then decide whether or not to purchase raw milk, you are now making an informed decision.
Tony runs the popular site, Fitness in an Evolutionary Direction, founded the Orlando Paleo Diet Meetup Group and is an American College of Sports Medicine certified Health & Fitness Specialist. He holds a Bachelors degree in Exercise Science from the University of Florida and has been a full-time Personal Trainer, Weight Loss Coach and Exercise Instructor (Yoga, Tai Chi and Boxing) since 2005. He broke from the conventional wisdom when a client gave him a copy of “The Paleo Diet” and after an initial 30-day trial, he never turned back. Tapping into a wide range of resources, from Economics to Epigenetics and beyond, his holistic approach to exercise and diet has allowed him the opportunity to help transform the lives of hundreds of people.