Raw milk: Does it do a body good? Why one group says yes

To heat or not to heat? It's a question that raw milk enthusiasts are encouraging regulators to rethink.

The pasteurization process began in the 19th century to prevent food borne illnesses such as listeriosis, typhoid fever and tuberculosis. By heating the milk to 161.6 degrees for 15 seconds, the process kills harmful bacteria.

Fast forward a couple of centuries, and proponents of raw milk now argue the bacteria-killing process created by Louis Pasteur is actually destroying the vital nutrients a body needs.

"People mainly drink raw milk because they like the taste … and they do believe in the health benefits," said Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund President Pete Kennedy. In an interview with CNBC's "On the Money," Kennedy says there's a scientific basis for the raw milk movement.

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"There have been studies in Europe indicating that raw milk can be protective against allergies and asthma," he added, echoing other believers who cite links between raw milk and falling allergy rates.

'Plenty of dairies produce raw milk'

A dairy farmer tends to his cattle while they pump milk.
Justin Solomon | CNBC
A dairy farmer tends to his cattle while they pump milk.

The movement to abandon pasteurization is gaining proponents, but skeptics—who include federal regulators who say milk that isn't pasteurized can pose serious health risks—still abound.

Recently, West Virginia's governor vetoed a bill that would have allowed the state to sell raw milk. In New York, retail raw milk sales are still banned statewide, but it can be sold on farms.

The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund's goal is to repeal policies that ban the sale of raw milk. The organization believes the conditions on dairy farms have improved to the point where pasteurization is no longer needed.

"What was happening back then was a lot of the dairies were moving into the cities. They were in unsanitary conditions," Kennedy argued. "They were using byproducts from distilleries to feed their animals."

Meanwhile, "there were still plenty of dairies producing raw milk out in the countryside. They weren't having any problems," he added. "Overall, the health problems were really concentrated in the urbanization of dairy farming around that time."

The push for raw milk is gaining ground with over 30 states permitting its sale in some way, shape or form. Depending on the state, you can buy raw milk in either retail stores, on a farm, or by participating in a herd share where you partially own the cow and therefore the milk.

This movement has prompted agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and American Academy of Pediatrics to speak out against drinking raw milk. They argue it is especially perilous for children, older adults, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.

In fact, the CDC has released statistics showing that there have been 81 bacteria outbreaks linked to raw milk in the U.S. between 2007 and 2012, with 81 percent of them occurring in states where selling raw milk was legal.

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However, Kennedy doesn't think the public should put too much faith into these agencies.

"As far as the CDC and FDA go, these are agencies that have let products such as Aspartame, [monosodium glutamate] MSG, high fructose corn syrup, and genetically modified foods all on the market that many people think are detrimental to health," he said.

In addition, pasteurized milk has also been implicated in outbreaks as recently as last month. Blue Bell recalled its products after three hospital patients in Kansas died from listeria, which has been potentially linked to their ice cream.

While raw milk is a niche product now, if its popularity grows it could be a boon to dairy farmers. Compared to pasteurized milk, which averages $3.50 per gallon, raw milk can fetch a whopping $16 per gallon, depending on the location. Talk about holy cow!

"On the Money" airs on CNBC Sundays at 7:30 pm, or check listings for air times in local markets.