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Pasteurization Protects People, Period

I note the ruckus over raw milk. Sorry, but I wouldn’t touch raw milk with a 10-foot straw.

I wouldn’t drink it, I wouldn’t eat it as cheese and I wouldn’t take a bath in it, either.

Nothing personal, but I don’t believe claims that pasteurizing milk destroys its nutritional value or that it’s a conspiracy of big agribusiness and big government to promote the interests of big pharma.

I see pasteurization of dairy products as a blessing. It prevents our return to a dreadful past in which diseases transmitted by raw milk afflicted hundreds of thousands every year. In fact, they still do in many parts of the world where people can’t get pasteurized dairy products.

The “raw milk revolution” looks more like an exotic caprice for rich (by comparison to the developing world) dilettantes who benefit from more than half a century of the developed world technology they dismiss.

Consider brucellosis. It’s a nasty, debilitating chronic disease that’s transmitted from cattle to humans. The symptoms include fever, anorexia, fatigue, headaches, depression and weight loss. It’s often confused with malaria or typhoid. It was a candidate for engineering as a biological weapon during the Cold War.

The principal vector for human infection with brucellosis is still raw dairy products. There are about 500,000 new cases of brucellosis every year, mostly in countries without access to the production infrastructure that permits large-scale pasteurization.

Africa is particularly vulnerable. Brucellosis is widespread in Tanzania, for example, and aside from the human health concern, is highly damaging to food security and to the sustainability of local economies because of the production losses it causes among the livestock it primarily affects – cattle and goats.

Other regions considered at risk are rural parts of the Mediterranean basin and the Middle East, Eastern Europe, South and Central America and parts of Asia.

By comparison, there are only about 200 cases of brucellosis each year in North America although a reservoir of infection persists in cattle. The disease emerged again in herds in Texas, Wyoming and Montana during an outbreak in 2003.

What sets developed countries apart from regions where brucellosis widely affects human populations is the presence of pasteurization of dairy products and deployment of aggressive control measures to eradicate reservoirs of infection.

Raw milk advocates who trumpet the health benefits of unpasteurized products are in fact the beneficiaries of precisely the public health “conspiracy” to pasteurize that so many deride and vilify.

And it’s not just transmission of brucellosis that pasteurization has helped to eliminate in North America. The implementation of this technology is directly associated with corresponding declines early in the last century in diphtheria and tuberculosis that were transmitted through raw dairy products.

How significant was the introduction of pasteurization?

In the 1920s, there were up to 200,000 diphtheria cases a year in North America. The fatality rate was as high as 10 per cent among children and resulted in up to 15,000 deaths annually. Tuberculosis is estimated to have killed one billion people globally between 1700 and 1900. Pasteurization helped control both.

Or course, factors other than pasteurization helped eliminate these scourges from Europe and North America, but pasteurizing dairy products and thus seriously restricting a major transmission vector is a big one. In North America, human brucellosis cases fell by 97 per cent, for example.

The medical literature provides anyone who cares to read it with evidence of the alarming consequences of consuming unpasteurized dairy products. Since 1993 there have been scores of disease outbreaks associated with raw dairy consumption in Canada, the United States, France, Ireland and the United Kingdom.

So, call me conservative if you like, but that will be strictly pasteurized for me, thanks.

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Stephen Hume is a columnist for The Vancouver Sun. This column, reprinted with permission, first appeared in the newspaper on Jan. 23, 2011.

© Food Safety News
  • Doc Mudd

    “The “raw milk revolution” looks more like an exotic caprice for rich (by comparison to the developing world) dilettantes who benefit from more than half a century of the developed world technology they dismiss…Raw milk advocates who trumpet the health benefits of unpasteurized products are in fact the beneficiaries of precisely the public health “conspiracy” to pasteurize that so many deride and vilify.”
    Well stated. This point cannot be over-emphasized.
    It is only by courtesy of hard-won successes in food safety (and standard of living, generally) that pretentious food snobs and loopy quack healers enjoy the luxury of seriously indulging themselves in ineffective and inefficient ‘alternative’ affectations…and ignorant junk science fantasies.

  • Ron

    Pasteurization, I would say, is the most ideal “balanced” approach to consume our needed nutritional dairy intake in a healthy way.
    Why play Russian roulette when it comes to our health?
    Even if it’s proven that key nutrients are sacrificied due to pasteurization, and this has yet to be solidly and scientifically confirmed, it’s not worth the risk of introducing unnecessary pathogens in our daily living!

  • Elizabeth

    I don’t call you conservative, I call you misinformed. The elimination of TB and BR in America was not achieved through pasteurization of milk, it was achieved through euthanasia of all infected cattle.

  • Minkpuppy

    No Elizabeth, you are misinformed. CONTROL of TB and brucellosis was achieved through testing and VACCINATION of herds to prevent infection, followed by the use of pastuerization/cooking of infected milk and meat. The author’s use of “eliminated” is misleading.
    When infected cattle are slaughtered, the meat is still infectious unless it is cooked to a high enough temperature to kill the bacteria. In fact, USDA requires cooking of the meat from all TB and Brucellosis reactor cattle. Milk from these animals has to be pasteurized to kill the organisms as well–fermentation won’t do it. TB is a spore former and will just go dormant until conditions are ripe for it to germinate again.
    These diseases HAVE NOT BEEN ELIMINATED–only controlled. TB and Brucellosis still occur regularly in wild buffalo and deer and still occasionally show up in our beef and dairy cattle. I know this for a fact-I’m a USDA inspector and I’ve found cattle that were later identified as infected with TB and so have many of the inspectors I’ve worked with over the years. TB and Brucellosis still exist and will always exist unless we can find a way to vaccinate every single wild buffalo, deer, big horn sheep etc.
    My great-great grandparents died of TB in the late 1800’s, most likely due to drinking raw milk and eating TB infected meat. As a result, my great-grandfather never knew either of them because he was placed in an orphanage as an infant because his father was already dead and his mother was too ill to care for him. Thanks to pastuerization, his descendants don’t have to fear being orphaned in the same way nor do they have to face months and months of powerful antibiotics in an attempt to cure an increasingly antibiotic resistant bug.
    Humans can contract TB through human-to-human transmission as well. People can carry and transmit TB without ever showing symptoms. Present day infections have been blamed on individuals travelling in underdeveloped countries or immigrants from those countries carrying it to the US. Because of this, there are travel restrictions on people that are known TB carriers.
    It’s a multitude of things that contributed to the decline of TB and brucellosis in the US.

  • Jeff

    Both sides of this issue have good points. However, pasteurization is the last defense in along the line of testing, vaccination, cleanliness and other regulations in order to attempt to protect the public. But in the end, the public should be allowed to make their own choice. After all, look at all of the people that get sick from eating raw, undercooked or bad meat as well as all the problems with contaminated food caused by improperly washed or cleaned vegetables. Unfortunately, it is cheaper and faster to use UHT and other higher temp processes now days rather than worrying about assuring the quality of the milk along each step of the process.
    For those dairies that provide a higher quality product, should the government be allowed to ruin their product when the products have been proven to be able to be supplied to the public in a safe manner?