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FDA, Health Canada: Listeria Much More Likely in Raw-Milk Cheese

Consumers are up to 160 times more likely to contract a Listeria infection from soft-ripened cheese made from raw milk compared to the same cheese made with pasteurized milk, according to a joint risk assessment drafted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada.

“This finding is consistent with the fact that consuming raw milk and raw milk products generally poses a higher risk from pathogens than do pasteurized milk and its products,” an FDA media release read.

On Monday, the FDA published a Federal Register Notice of the draft assessment for a public comment period ending April 29.

The FDA’s assessment examined the mathematical probability of consumers in the U.S. and Canada contracting Listeria infection via either pasteurized or raw-milk camembert cheese.

In the U.S., the FDA estimates that there is one case of listeriosis linked to raw-milk cheese for every 55 million servings eaten. For pasteurized soft cheese, that ratio is one listeriosis case for every 8.64 billion servings.

For raw-milk cheese producers to reduce their Listeria risk to levels equal with pasteurized producers, they would need to test every raw-milk cheese lot for pathogens and remove any positive lots from the supply chain, the assessment concluded. Testing only some lots would not provide the same level of reduced risk.

Whether from pasteurized or unpasteurized products, Listeria monocytogenes has some of the highest fatality and hospitalization rates among pathogenic bacteria.

Health officials especially discourage children, the elderly, pregnant women, and those with weakened immune systems from consuming raw milk products due to the heightened risk of contracting Listeria or other harmful bacteria typically killed during the pasteurization process.

Despite their mathematically lower risk, pasteurized soft cheeses have been recently tied to notable Listeria outbreaks.

Between March and September 2012, at least 22 people in the U.S. fell ill from Frescolina Marte-brand ricotta solata cheese made from pasteurized sheep’s milk and imported from Italy. That outbreak resulted in 4 deaths and 20 hospitalizations.

And right now, Australia is experiencing “the nation’s largest Listeria outbreak,” with at least 26 people sickened — including 3 dead — after eating cheeses produced with pasteurized milk by Jindi Cheese.

Read the draft assessment here, a summary here, and internal peer-review responses here.

© Food Safety News
  • Something to note about the pasteurized cheese outbreaks: pasteurization doesn’t guarantee no problems, it just lessens them.

    We also have to remember that people eat pasteurized cheese at orders of magnitude more than people eating raw cheese. 

  • I wish these people reporting on so-called “research findings” on unpasteurized dairy risks would distinguish between factory-farmed (CAFO) animals and the filthy bulk bins of ‘dirty milk’ which ABSOLUTELY needs to be pasteurized to be safe, and the small and mid-sized dairy operations whose animals receive proper feed, treatment and sheltering that is ETHICAL.  The difference between these dairy products is HUGE.

    • Emily73

      Oh really. FOUR raw milk outbreaks in 2012 were caused by “small farms” which were “small dairy operations whose animals receive proper feed, treatment, and sheltering” blah blah blah. Stroupe farms’ milk had E. coli 0157:H7 and sickened 14 people and gave a toddler HUS. Campylobacter in Organic Pastures milk in California sickened 10 people. Family Cow Farm in Pennsylvania sickened more than 80 people with Campylobacter. Foundation Farm in Oregon had an E. coli outbreak that sickened 19 people, giving four children HUS. Here are the facts: cows poop right next to their udders. There is no way to get milk free of bacteria. The size of the farm makes absolutely no difference in the real world.

    • Farm girl

      Why are CAFO’s always getting the bad rep? Their management practices are as safe, if not safer, than traditional smaller farms. They have to be because they are monitored more closely in light of the fact that they produce larger quantities of product to be sold to the market. There are no differences in the decisions they make and the decisions that smaller farms make, they are just on a larger scale. Instead of ordering feed for 500 head, they order for 5000. Instead of one milker in the parlor, they have 2-4. They have more people to monitor the animals, more people to treat sick animals, and more frequent visits from the vet (most times for herd health, not sickness issues). And the SCC scores (Somatic cell count = how “dirty” the milk is) are similar between CAFO’s and traditional farms. The managers know their cows just like on a smaller operation, and they recognize that the better you treat them the more milk they will produce.

  • ybj

    Guess you shouldn’t eat lettuce, cantaloupe, sprouts, broccoli — blah blah blah — either.

    A new study by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) found that the majority of food-borne illnesses come from green vegetables, not meat or dairy products. The study found that 51% of the 9.6 million cases of food-borne illnesses were traced to contaminated plants, while all meat and poultry combined came in at a mere 22%. Leafy greens themselves cause 23% of the illnesses, which include the norovirus that causes the stomach flu. NYTimes. 2013

  • Brent Melville

    Wait a minute, “despite their mathematically lower risk, pasteurized soft cheezes have been recently tied to notoable Listeria outbreaks.” …. March-September 22 people ill from ricotta solata cheese made from pasteurized sheeps milk from Italy – four deaths, and 20 hoospitalisation and 26 sick including 3 dead from pasteurized milk cheese in Australia!
    WELL HELLO, DOES THAT MEAN WE SHOULD BAN ALL PASTEURISED MILK FROM CHEESE PRODUCTION? A few lysteria outbreaks involving raw milk years ago is the rationale for banning raw milk for human consumption in Australia! What a pack of hypocrites!

  • Zoe

    I have a question. Europeans drink raw milk and eat cheese made from raw milk. They do just fine. If Americans or Canadians drink raw milk or eat cheese made from raw milk, it’ll kill them. Why?

    • Kelly McCracken

      I don’t know if you’re getting your ideas from horrible sources or just making them up! Raw milk (/its products) has been linked to TWO whole deaths in the United States. This statistic is not hard to find and clearly shows that your claim that “if Americans […] drink raw milk or eat cheese made from raw milk, it’ll kill them” is unwarranted. Compare two deaths to the amount deaths that have been caused by pasteurized products and any other food born illness in the United States. However, I warn you that a comprehensive comparison of raw vs. unpasteurized outbreaks in not made readily available by the CDC. But hey, I would want to keep the largest outbreak of Salmonella typhimurium recorded in the United States under wraps too if I were them, as it nicely shoots down their adamant warnings about raw milk. This outbreak occurred in 1987 and was linked to *pasteurized milk*. The Journal of the American Medical Association detailed this incident in its article “Massive Outbreak of Antimicrobial- Resistant Salmonellosis Traces to Pasteurized Milk”: there were over 16,000 confirmed cases of infection, almost 3,000 hospitalizations and 18 deaths from salmonella linked to pasteurized 2% milk. This outbreak alone is more than the CDC’s statistic about raw milk: “from 1998 through 2011, 148 outbreaks due to
      consumption of raw milk or raw milk products were reported to CDC. These resulted
      in 2,384 illnesses, 284 hospitalizations, and 2 deaths.” I understand how easy it is to blindly believe these figures, as they stand alone in an article warning dedicated to the “dangers” of raw milk. But then you can do a little further research and compare, seeing that “each year, roughly 48 million people (1 in 6) get sick from food eaten in the United States.” That’s a quote from the CDC themselves. In an effort to attribute certain foods to outbreaks, the CDC did a study of food-borne outbreaks between 1998 and 2008. Guess what was number 1? Not raw milk! It was produce, at 46% illnesses and 23% deaths. What was number 2? Not raw milk again! Meat and poultry, and 22% illnesses and 29% deaths. Number 3? The category of Dairy and Eggs; 20% illnesses and 15% deaths. Raw milk is somewhere within that category; the CDC doesn’t tell us how much it accounts for, which means that it wasn’t significant enough to mention. Do you still think raw milk is a high risk food?