Fight Back Against the Raw Milk Fringe

Rebekah Sweeney Senior Director, Programs & Policy,
Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association

December 1, 2023

In today’s fragmented political system, persistent fringe groups have inordinate power to be heard. In Washington, DC, and in state legislatures, as the old adage goes, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

Or maybe, it gets the raw milk?

In the past year, three states – Georgia, Iowa, and North Dakota – have enacted laws allowing the sale of unpasteurized (raw) milk, becoming the latest examples of an abrupt and alarming policy shift coast-to-coast.

Since 2018, the number of states legalizing raw milk sales jumped from 20 to 46. Most restrict raw milk sales to the farm site, but a growing number – now 14 – allow retail grocery store sales, too.

In Wisconsin, strong advocacy from processors, farmers and the medical community ended four separate bids between 2009 and 2016 to allow broad sales of raw milk, accepting only incidental exchanges between a farmer and consumer.

The debate over raw milk sales has lain dormant in America’s Dairyland since then, but in late November, a small group of Wisconsin lawmakers introduced a new bill designed to legalize both the advertisement and retail sale of raw milk, requiring only very limited testing and reporting on the part of dairy producers.

It’s an irresponsible idea, jeopardizing both consumers’ well-being and the strength of a backbone industry for Wisconsin.

Let’s refresh ourselves, first, on what’s at stake when it comes to public health. Raw milk can carry Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, E. coli, Listeria, Brucella, and Salmonella – all harmful and sometimes lethal pathogens. People who get sick from raw milk may experience the unpleasantness of gastro-intestinal distress, but others – more likely young children, senior citizens, the immuno-compromised, and pregnant women – can experience severe complications, including Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can cause paralysis, and hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can result in kidney failure, stroke, or death.

From 2013 through 2018, 75 outbreaks voluntarily reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were linked to raw milk. Outbreaks during those years sickened 2,645 people and caused 228 hospitalizations and three deaths.

More recent reports reveal a continued pattern. Last month, four people were hospitalized and another 20 made sick by consumption of raw milk in California and Utah. In September, five people in Wyoming were infected with Campylobacter and E. coli bacteria, landing two children in the hospital. In July 2023, the Minnesota Department of Health reported one child hospitalized and seven people sickened with cryptosporidiosis and E. coli after drinking raw milk.

There have been outbreaks in Wisconsin, too, notably a 2014 incident in which 38 people who consumed raw milk suffered Campylobacter infections, with 10 hospitalized.

The scientific data and illness outbreak records we have – now dating back more than 100 years – make it clear: raw milk is not a safe commercial product.

Nor is it a smart product to have on the shelf for a state like Wisconsin, where dairy is a $46 billion industry, contributing 157,000 jobs and $1.26 billion in state and local taxes.

Wisconsin dairy farmers and processors have earned the trust of consumers around the world, delivering nutritious, delicious, and – importantly – safe dairy products.

Dairy products are safe: less than 2 percent of all foodborne illness outbreaks can be attributed to dairy. But raw milk isn’t: more than 70 percent of those dairy-related foodborne illness outbreaks can be attributed to raw milk exposure. Laws placing raw milk next to pasteurized milk on grocery store shelves invite consumer confusion and the potential for great harm.

Most Americans seem to understand both the public health and economic arguments against this change in public policy. Despite growing access to raw milk in the United States, the product still accounts for less than $20 million in sales annually. It’s an amount that pales in comparison to total dairy milk sales which reached $15.7 billion in 2022.

Clearly, legislators pushing for retail raw milk sales, both in Wisconsin and in other states, are catering to a small, self-interested group of constituents, rather than the majority.

Now, it’s time for dairy farmers and processors to get squeaky. Make your voice heard, whether directly to your elected officials or via trade organizations like WCMA.

Tell lawmakers that raw milk sales are bad for the health of American consumers and they’re bad for our business.”


Rebekah Sweeney

Rebekah Sweeney serves as Senior Director, Programs & Policy for the
Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association.

She can be reached at or by phone at 608-286-1001

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