ST. LOUIS — Organizers billed the raw milk debate at the annual conference of the International Association for Food Protection as an “Amicable Exchange of Experts.”
To the extent that the experts refrained from name calling and the use of profanity, the IAFP program was correct. In fact, after taking turns at the podium, the four presenters sat together at the same table for a question-answer session.
But anyone who was hoping for new insights or enlightenment during the two-hour session was no doubt disappointed.
Those who attended the session expecting to hear a debate also got less than they or session organizers bargained for, at least in Round 2.
“In this debate, experts from the pro-raw milk and the pro-pasteurization sides will square off, in a highly controlled and moderated format, for a risk-benefit analysis of raw milk consumption,” the IAFP promised.
“A previous debate on this topic, held at Harvard University, in 2012, included no Ph.D. or M.D.-credentialed participants. This exchange will include three Ph.D. and one M.D./M.S.-degreed professionals.”
The two Ph.D. debaters in Round 1 stuck to the published rules of the session as they stuck to their pro-raw and pro-pasteurization perspectives.
On the side of raw milk, a key point from Joseph Heckman of Rutgers University involved the very use of the term “raw milk.” He is affiliated with the “Campaign for Real Milk,” which is a project of the Weston A. Price Foundation. Heckman is also chair of the Organic Management Systems Community within the American Society of Agronomy.
Heckman said when he talks about the benefits of “fresh unpasteurized milk” he is referring only to “unprocessed, certified, milk that has been properly produced.”
Heckman cited the standard studies supporting the safety of unpasteurized milk that anyone remotely familiar with the raw milk debate has seen. He discussed raw milk as a protectant against allergies, asthma and other health problems.
He also said many other foods are not safe but the public is encouraged to eat them, citing leafy greens as an example of the source of foodborne illness outbreaks in recent years.
“There’s no anus on a lettuce plant,” Heckman said, “but leafy greens are considered a high-risk food.”
Similarly citing well-known research, but supporting the opposing view, was Jeff Kornacki, a former lab manager for Silliker Laboratories Group who is currently an adjunct faculty member at the University of Georgia Center for Food Safety and Department of Food Science and the Michigan State University National Center for Food Safety & Toxicology.
Kornacki said the question of balancing public health with risk should always error on the side of caution when it comes to food safety. He also said he doesn’t believe “all natural” equates with health or safety.
“My assumption is not that nature is perfect,” Kornacki said “My assumption is that nature is wild and can be dangerous.”
The so-called death angel mushroom is a case in point, Kornacki said. Even cooking them does not make them safe to eat because their toxins are heat resistant.
However, Kornacki said, the toxins in unpasteurized raw milk are susceptible to heat. Warming milk to 161 degrees for 15 seconds takes care of its wild side by killing pathogens such as E. coli, Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella and Campylobacter.
“I’m not talking homogenized,” Kornacki said, “just pasteurized. … Twenty-five percent of foodborne illnesses were associated with milk in 1938. Now it’s less than 1 percent.”
Heckman countered at the end of Round 1 by saying it is more dangerous to ride in a car than to drink unpasteurized raw milk. He said forcing families to drive from New Jersey to farms in New York to buy raw milk flies in the face of public health efforts because it exposes them to traffic accidents.
Kornacki had the last word in Round 1, saying more research is needed before public health proponents can endorse unpasteurized milk.
“We need to figure out how and what to research,” Kornacki said. “High-pressure processing research may have potential. We need to find a way to achieve a 5-log reduction of low-dose pathogens.”
Round 2: The Ph.D. vs. the M.D.
For the second half of the session, Jeffrey Farber, Director of the Canadian Research Institute for Food Safety at the University of Guelph, faced off against medical doctor Theodore Beals, a board member for the Farm to Consumer Foundation and avid drinker and promoter of unpasteurized milk.
“The advent of milk pasteurization is one of the greatest public health interventions in history,” Faber said. “Based on scientific evidence, (Health) Canada sees no health benefit from raw milk.”
Farber cited risk assessments in Australia and New Zealand, as well as many of the same studies other pasteurization proponents frequently reference. However, he focused on the impact on a specific age group: children aged 4 years and younger.
A disproportionate number of victims in outbreaks traced to raw milk are young children whose immune systems cannot handle the pathogens present in unpasteurized milk, Farber said. He also said comparing raw milk to other high risk foods is fair in some respects, “but you don’t have infants eating fresh sprouts. Public health recognizes milk’s connection to children and particularly very young children.”
Assigned by the debate organizers to respond to Farber’s affirmative position, Beals opened by saying he would not debate. He said a debate in front of a group of people is not the appropriate way to share information about raw milk.
“We should discuss this,” Beals said, gesturing at Farber and himself. “We should sit down and show each other the research and discuss what it means.”
Like Heckman, Beals also objected to the use of the term raw milk: “I’m talking fresh, whole, unpasteurized milk for human consumption.” Beals said “raw milk” is mass-produced milk intended to be pasteurized before sale.
Beals said he was not interested in talking about the details of research and that he would only speak “in broad strokes.” Anything a human being ingests could cause illness, he said.
In comparison, he said, the “published illnesses for raw milk are 50 to 200 per year out of 11 million” people in the United States who drink unpasteurized milk. “Those numbers are insignificant,” Beals said.
Though he said he wasn’t debating Farber’s statements, Beals did say statistics about the percentage of raw milk outbreak victims who are young children is skewed.
“We did a study and it’s because children are more likely to be drinking milk,” Beals said. “And, when babies get sick people take them to the doctor. Adults don’t go to the doctor every time they get sick, so it just looks like kids get sick more often.”
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