The CDC recently released statistics for the first time on raw milk consumption, and raw milk-related illnesses. They also released their own conclusions, which, ironically, don't match their own data. However, an article released a couple weeks ago, Raw Milk Reality: Is Raw Milk Dangerous? attempts to examine the best numbers available from the CDC and other sources, and does its own analysis of the relative safety of raw milk compared to other foods, and specifically, pasteurized milk.
Among its findings:
- Dairy products, categorically, are the safest of all food types, in terms of food-borne illness outbreaks
- 2000 - 2007, there were 37 food-borne illness outbreaks related to raw liquid milk, affecting 800 people. Average outbreak size: 22 people
- 2000 - 2007, there were 8 food-borne illness outbreaks related to pasteurized liquid milk, affecting 2214 people. Average outbreak size: 277 people
- 2000 - 2007, raw liquid milk was responsible for an average of 100 reported illnesses per year among an estimated 9.4 million consumers of raw liquid milk, for a 1 in 94,000 chance of becoming ill
- 2000 - 2007, pasteurized liquid milk was responsible for an average of 277 reported illnesses per year among an estimated 246.1 million consumers of pasteurized liquid milk, for a 1 in 888,000 chance of becoming ill
- 2000 - 2007, raw liquid milk was responsible for 12 hospitalizations, or 1 in 6 million chance of being hospitalized due to raw liquid milk consumption
The article also pulls in data from other sources to compare the relative risk of raw milk consumption with other common activities, and concludes that:
- Drivers are 779 times more likely to die in a motor vehicle accident than raw milk drinkers are to be hospitalized for consuming raw liquid milk
- Air passengers are 3 times more likely to die in an aircraft accident than raw milk drinkers are to be hospitalized for consuming raw liquid milk
Another recent article, Outbreaks and Illnesses from Raw and Pasteurized Milk And Dairy Products, 1998-Present looking at data over a longer time period, but for which absolute number of raw-milk consumers is not available. It shows that, for liquid milk consumption:
- 1998 - 2009, there were 85 food-borne illness outbreaks related to raw liquid milk, affecting 1,495 people, including no deaths. Average outbreak size: 18 people
- 1998 - 2009, there were 9 foud-borne illness outbreaks related to pasteurized liquid milk, affecting 2,200 people, including 3 deaths. Average outbreak size: 244 people
The data from these two articles don't completely agree with each other. It's not clear where the discrepancy lies. What seems clear from my research, though, is that there has not been a single confirmed raw-milk releated death in the U.S. since the 1980s, despite CDC claims to the contrary on their web site. The CDC has even admitted their propaganda is wrong.
TL;DR; / Conclusion:
Using the best data currently available, strictly from a food-borne illness standpoint, consuming raw milk carries roughly 9.4 times higher relative risk than consuming pasteurized milk. But in absolute terms, both risks are incredibly small, with raw milk carrying a 1/94,000 (0.001064%) chance of illness, and pasteurized milk carrying a 1/888,000 (0.000113%) chance of illness.
For many, the touted benefits of raw milk (more on that in my old answer below) are worth the added 0.000951% chance of food-borne illness.
But food-borne illness is not the only risk associated with liquid milk consumption. Some other possible risks which may favor raw milk, but which are much harder to quantify, are:
- Pasteurized milk may contribute to many ailments, including lactose intolerance, allergies, asthma, frequent ear infections, gastro-Intestinal problems, diabetes, auto-Immune disease, attention deficit disorder and constipation (source).
- Traditional dairies in the U.S. use rBGH (which is illegal in many other countries). Consuming milk from rBGH-treated cows may increase the risk of certain cancers in humans, particularly breast and prostate cancer. (source)
- Traditional dairies, and in particular those which also use rBGH, often administer large amounts of antibiotics to their cows, which typically gets into the milk, exposing the human consumers to unnecessary antibiotics. The risks of over-exposure to antibiotics is well documented. The main concern is in making antibiotic-resistent "superbug" strains. (source).
Note that the last two (rBGH and antibiotics) can also be avoided by purchasing organic pasteurized milk.
MY OLD ANSWER; left for reference
Short answer: No. In fact, pasteurized milk is often more dangerous than raw milk.
Long answer: Of course, it depends.
Raw milk is not inherently dangerous at all. The reason for pasteurization is not because milk is, by nature, a dangerous product to consume. Pasteurization is done for two basic reasons: 1) To kill any living contaminants, and 2) to extend shelf life.
Because pasteurization kills most bacteria (good and bad) contained in the milk, it won't go bad as quickly. The down side to this is, when it does begin to sour, it goes rancid, and is no longer fit for human consumption. On the other hand, when raw milk begins to sour, it isn't actually "bad" immediately, because the live cultures in milk prevent it from going rancid so quickly. Many foods we take for granted are various forms of "sour" milk--Yogurt, Cheese, sour cream, etc. And if you consume raw milk, and it begins to sour, you can still use it to make many of these milk products.
Fermentation starts digesting the milk protein casein, and digests some of the lactose. Souring of [raw] milk does not destroy any of milks beneficial properties.
Treat a sample of pasteurized milk in the same way as above and putrefaction will make the milk unfit for human consumption. This is due to disease producing bacteria surviving the pasteurization process. (Emphasis in original)
And paraphrasing an Anonymous dairy farmer:
Pasteurized milk gone bad will kill you - raw milk won't.....pasteurized milk rots.
Now, the reason for pasteurizing milk is to kill harmful living organisms. However, it also kills most of the beneficial living organisms in the milk as well. This can, in some cases, actually lead pasteurized milk to be more dangerous than raw milk.
Pasteurized milk is harder to digest, especially for those who are lactose intolerant or with digestive disorders.
Today, milk is made even more indigestible by the universal practice of pasteurization, which destroys its natural enzymes and alters its delicate proteins. (source).
Pasteurized milk has less nutritional value. (source)
Pasteurized milk is less beneficial in boosting immune system function (source)
Pasteurized milk is more susceptible to contamination:
Due to high-volume distribution and its comparative lack of anti-microbial components, pasteurized milk when contaminated has caused numerous widespread and serious outbreaks of illness, including a 1984-5 outbreak afflicting almost 200,000 people. In 2007, three people died in Massachusetts from illness caused by contaminated pasteurized milk (Real Milk PowerPoint, slide 30).
Raw milk is useful in fighting infection, diarrhea, rickets, tooth decay, TB, asthma, allergies (source), diabetes1, Bright's disease, gastric disturbances, obesity, urinary problems, and kidney stones2
Pasteurized milk contributes to many ailments (ironcially, many of them are also found in the list that raw milk helps treat): lactose intolerance, allergies, asthma, frequent ear infections, gastro-Intestinal problems, diabetes, auto-Immune disease, attention deficit disorder and constipation (source)
The reason pasteurization ever caught on as a practice, was to reduce the possibility for contamination in milk. This may well have been (and may continue to be!) a valid concern, in some cases. Although the evidence is shaky, at best. The two possible sources of contamination are:
Contamination passed from cow to milk
As @Paula pointed out, there has been a concern that TB may pass from bovine to human. This was considered a legitimate threat in 1882, when Dr. Robert Koch discovered that bovine and human varieties of TB were deemed similar. However, Koch later changed his opinion, saying that bovine TB could not spread to humans. The professional opinion has further been adjusted since then, and the current state of affairs on bovine/human TB contamination is essentially that:
[I]t appears obvious that we have arrived at a point in [the United States] when the dissemination of bovine tuberculosis is no longer a matter of serious concern. (source).
Ironically, raw milk is actually beneficial in fighting TB in humans. Real Milk PowerPoint, slides 54-56, 58.
Contamination from processing
At the time pasteurization was initiated, many (if not most) of the dairies in the U.S. (and much of Europe) were filthy, and sanitation was abysmal, leading to much contamination of milk during milking and bottling. Since the invention of closed-system milking machines in the 1940s, it is possible to eliminate the most serious exposure to external contamination.
Other factors affect the relative safety of raw vs. pasteurized milk as well. This site describes how a cow's diet has a strong impact on the pathogen-fighting ability of the milk produced, and as such, milk from cows fed diets heavy in heavy in grain, soybeans and cottonseed meal (common in many commercial dairy operations) must be pasteurized to be safe.
On the measured safety of raw milk:
Based on data in a 2003 USDA/FDA report: Compared to raw milk there are 515 times more illnesses from L-mono due to deli meats and 29 times more illness from L-mono due to pasteurized milk. On a PER-SERVING BASIS, deli meats were TEN times more likely than raw milk to cause illness (Intrepretive Summary – Listeria Monocytogenes Risk Assessment, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Sept. 2003, page 17). (Emphasis mine)
This 132-page report examines the various scientific studies that supposedly cast a shadow over raw milk, and tries to interpret them with less (supposed) bias. The following table is taken from page 6, and shows the results of examining 70 studies purported to show the dangers of raw milk, and the various flaws in many of the reports. The paper goes on to address each of the 70 studies point-by-point.
Among the findings of this report are that much of the evidence cited in the BJM article mentioned in @matt_black's answer, was flawed. Specifically, those that are mentioned in both papers:
- BJM Ref 1, Review p.80 - Milk-bourne illness outbreak in Scottland likely would not have been averted by pasteurization
- BJM ref 8, Review p.43 - Testing found no contamination in the raw milk supply
- BJM ref 10, Review p.41 - Contaminated raw milk was discovered, but not in milk intended for sale as raw milk.
- BJM ref 12,18, Review p.42 - "This is a review rather than a primary reference." and "There are no outbreaks mentioned in this review that could be said to be
conclusively linked to unpasteurized milk, and in most cases the suspected milk was
intended for pasteurization."
100% of the studies cited by the FDA to implicate raw milk were fatally flawed, and failed to show raw milk is dangerous. (Response to the FDA, p. ii)
Between 1980 and 2005, the CDC attributed 19,531 illness cases to pasteurized milk and milk products, 10.7 times more than to raw milk. From this we cannot determine if raw milk is safer than pasteurized, in part because there are no accurate estimates of raw milk consumers. ([Response to the FDA, p. ii)
Between 1998 and 2005, raw milk was associated with 0.4% of CDC-documented food-borne illnesses, including 831 illnesses, 66 hospitalizations, and a single death. (Response to the FDA, p. iii,5) Clearly raw milk is not "perfectly safe," but neither is any other food.
In conclusion, if you can find a clean source of raw milk from healthy, well-fed cows, it is probably safer than the pasteurized milk you can find at the supermarket. On the other hand, if your raw milk is unsafely handled, or comes from unhealthy cows, it may be harmful. But that's really just common sense--we all want to eat clean food, right? And as many others have pointed out, enforcing proper quality control on raw milk can be very difficult--although it has been done in many large-scale commercial operations, but usually along with a higher price tag.
1 Porter, Charles Sanford. Milk Diet as a Remedy for Chronic Disease. Long Beach, California, 1905
2 Professor Tyson, James. Journal of the American Medical Association. June, 1884.