Sick West Virginia Lawmakers Reignite Raw Milk Debate

Is raw milk a miracle cure or a public safety hazard?

Photo via Flickr user Health Gauge

After approving a bill legalizing raw milk in West Virginia, local legislators and capitol staffers have reportedly come down with a rash of stomach problems that a tipster claims was caused by drinking the unpasteurized beverage. According to the Associated Press, Delegate Scott Cadle, who introduced the bill to ease laws around the controversial dairy product, brought some raw milk to the state capitol for a celebratory toast with his fellow legislators. Soon afterward, a number of those who drank the milk developed fever, vomiting, and diarrhea, and now state health officials have been called in to investigate.

It’s unclear who exactly first made the correlation between Cadle’s lac-toast and the spate of illness, but he and other lawmakers are denying any connection. “Everybody up there is getting it,” Cadle told AP. “It's a stomach virus. It didn't have nothing to do with that milk.”

“[Cadle] caught me in the hallway, offered a cup to me, and you want to try to be a gentleman,” Delegate Pat McGeehan told WSAZ. “I had a small sip and walked away and tossed the rest of it. I highly doubt raw milk had anything to do with it, in my case.”

A similar bill was vetoed last year, but Governor Earl Ray Tomblin felt that this new law, which requires those who drink raw milk to sign a document acknowledging the risks, and demands health tests for animals the milk comes from, covered any potential issues. People can share raw milk with one another or give it away, but the sale and large-scale distribution of raw milk is still illegal.

“Guys, we’re not talking about legalizing marijuana or anything like that, we’re simply talking about—milk,” Delegate Josh Nelson said in February, when the bill was being debated.

The sale and consumption of raw milk has been a hotly contested issue, with proponents claiming all kinds of health, taste, and environmental benefits from drinking the stuff. Health and safety officials, on the other hand, point out that drinking raw milk—which is unpasteurized, meaning that it hasn’t been heated to a high enough temperature to kill any potentially harmful bacteria—carries with it the risk of serious illness, and even death.

In 2012, the CDC reported that the chances of getting sick from unpasteurized milk are 150 times greater than from pasteurized milk, and the FDA has warned about bacterial outbreaks linked to raw milk products. But those who swear by the dairy beverage claim that drinking it can cure asthma, diarrhea, and anemia, and that though the bacteria in milk can occasionally be pathogenic, it is usually actually a boon to the microbial systems in our guts. Some take the raw milk rhetoric even further: Sally Fallon Morell, founder and president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, which promotes the consumption of “nutrient-dense foods,” told The Atlantic in 2010, “I believe that pasteurization is the most disastrous public health initiative we’ve ever had.”

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