Over the last six months, I’ve been hearing pretty much nonstop about the benefits of drinking raw milk — that is, unpasteurized milk — from a friend who also believes that eating raw meat is preferable to cooked meat.

This friend has repeatedly ignored my gag reflex when the subjects are brought up. But thanks to his insistence, this post at the Campaign for Liberty’s website caught my eye:

Freedom comes with a certain amount of risk. If you wanted to live a risk free life, then a benevolent dictatorship might be your preferred form of government. But, as Thomas Jefferson wrote,  ”I would rather be exposed to the inconveniencies [sic] attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.”

On his Facebook page, Rep. Massie at least had a sense of humor about the opposition to his bills from Big Milk, posting “The lactose lobby can be so intolerant! It’s time to legalize freedom.”

We’re glad to see Rep. Massie is in line with a great American political tradition that places personal freedom over the desire for the Nanny State to keep us safe from ourselves. This sort of strong opposition, this early, from Big Milk is actually a good sign that they’re worried about the number of original cosponsors this legislation has and the potential for momentum to swing in our direction.

Massie has introduced two bills that would create more freedom with regards to milk sales. One, with 11 cosponsors, would allow for the interstate sale of raw milk. The other, with 20 cosponsors, would allow the sale of raw milk between states that already allow raw milk sales.

Via Politico, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports the risk of raw milk is substantial, as compared to pasteurized milk:

  • During 1993–2006, 121 outbreaks reported to CDC were caused by dairy products where the investigators could determine if the dairy product was pasteurized or unpasteurized (raw). These outbreaks included 4,413 illnesses, 239 hospitalizations, and 3 deaths.

  • 73 outbreaks (46 from fluid milk and 27 from cheese) were caused by raw milk, and 48 outbreaks (10 from fluid milk and 38 from cheese) were caused by pasteurized milk.

  • Probably no more than 1% of the milk consumed in the United States is raw, yet more outbreaks were caused by raw milk than by pasteurized milk.

  • If you consider the number of outbreaks caused by raw milk in light of the very small amount of milk that is consumed raw, the risk of outbreaks caused by raw milk is at least 150 times greater than the risk of outbreaks caused by pasteurized milk.

And the diseases have worse effects:

  • The hospitalization rate for patients in outbreaks caused by raw milk was 13 times higher (13% vs. 1%) than the rate for people in outbreaks caused by pasteurized milk.

  • This difference is probably partly because the outbreaks caused by raw milk were all caused by bacterial infections that tend to be more severe. For example, E. coli O157:H7, a bacterium that can cause kidney failure and death, was a common cause of outbreaks due to raw milk. For outbreaks caused by pasteurized milk, relatively mild viral infections and foodborne toxins were more common causes.

  • This difference makes sense because raw milk is probably contaminated at the time of milking of the cows. The skin of cows is contaminated with huge numbers of bacteria, even if sanitary precautions are taken. Some of the bacteria, while harmless to the cows, can cause disease in people. On the other hand, if pasteurized milk is contaminated after pasteurization, it is likely to be due to improper storage or by an infected food preparer. In these situations, serious bacterial infections are less likely to happen.

However, one advocate told Politico the risk shouldn’t matter with regards to its legality:

Pete Kennedy, president of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, the major national group advocating for raw milk, argues that the statistics paint a misleading picture. He says there are several other products that aren’t banned that contribute to diseases, such as cigarettes, alcohol and even pasteurized milk in some cases.

“The trouble is that raw milk is the only food that is held to a standard of perfection,” he said.

I don’t drink milk due to a slight allergy, but recently I took the plunge and drank a glass of my friend’s raw milk. I didn’t end up in the hospital, and in fact felt none of the normal allergenic effects I normally associate with drinking milk (something he had said would be the case). I doubt I’ll be making raw milk a regular habit, but like how I support the right of restaurants to allow smoking despite my personal distaste for the habit, and how I wear a bike helmet and a seat belt despite my opposition to mandates for adults to use both, I am glad to see Rep. Massie and a bipartisan group work to give the right of free trade back to the American people.

As always, though, praise for this effort should be balanced with realization of how inconsequential this issue is in the grand scheme of things. Yes, it’s great to see any legislation that expands personal liberty get bipartisan support in Congress, even if it’s going nowhere fast, but let’s be honest: the ban on sales of raw milk is hardly the nation’s most pressing issue. If only these guys and gals could actually work together on issues of critical importance — say, cutting the budget where there is enormous bipartisan agreement, such as ethanol subsidies or fraud, duplication, and improper payments, or joining the majority of American people in banning late-term abortions.