America is seeing more and more outbreaks and illnesses from people drinking raw, unpasteurized milk. This phenomena has been on the rise over the last 15 years or so. This documented increase is most likely because of PulseNet, the relatively new Centers for Disease Control (CDC) tool, introduced in 1996, that now allows us to link what used to be seemingly isolated illnesses into outbreaks, and with outbreaks and numbers, the epidemiologists are more likely to find a common source.
Before pasteurization of milk (heating to a certain temperature designed to kill any organisms present) became more or less the norm in the 1930s in the U.S., milk in this country was linked to over 25 percent of food and water borne illness outbreaks and many infant deaths. Now milk is responsible for less than 1 percent of foodborne outbreaks. But it could and should be less than 0.1 percent because nearly all milk-related outbreaks are from raw milk and cheese made from raw milk.
The leading milk related human illnesses before pasteurization were brucellosis, diphtheria and bovine tuberculosis, three diseases now well-controlled or virtually eliminated in modern dairy herds in the U.S., but still present in some other countries. Because of the control of these organisms, some feel that pasteurization is no longer necessary to get good, wholesome, safe milk. But they are wrong. And their children are paying a price.
As I stated, the number of outbreaks linked to raw milk has been climbing recently. Between 1998 and 2008, the CDC identified 85 outbreaks from drinking raw milk. In 2010 alone, the number was over a dozen outbreaks. The great majority of raw milk victims are children under the age of 18.
Of course the illnesses today are not tuberculosis or diphtheria, but are caused by Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7 and Campylobacter, bacteria found in the intestines of many feed animals. No matter how hard the dairy farmer may try, cows and goats live in an environment loaded with manure and sterilization of the milking environment is one tough, impossible task.
There may be more than two reasons for this increase in outbreaks, but here are two that immediately come to my mind.
First, we have better attribution due to better epidemiology and the creation of PulseNet that can help link seemingly unrelated illnesses.
Secondly, we are seeing a push for buying locally and “knowing your local farmer” as a result of media stories about the dangers inherent in certain mass-produced foods, whether true or not. But whether buying locally is safer and healthier or not is a debate for another day.
My guess is that the 30 or more people poisoned in the 11th raw milk related outbreak in 2010, who “bought” goats’ milk from the Billy Goat Dairy in nearby Longmont, CO, and then became ill with Campylobacter and/or E. coli 0157:H7, including the two with hemolytic uremic syndrome, are probably questioning if “knowing your farmer” and buying “locally” is really safer or not. The kids who were sickened might be questioning their parents’ intelligence.
In Colorado, it is illegal to sell raw, unpasteurized goats’ or cows’ milk, but the people who fell ill and the farmer got around this by what is called the Goat Share Program. You buy a share of a goat (or cow) for a set price and get a set amount of milk in return. And you pay a “boarding fee” on top of that to cover the farmers’ costs and labor. So it is technically your goat, I guess, and therefore you are not violating the law by “buying milk.”
Laws are written for a reason, usually to help keep us safe. Parents who find ways to circumvent the laws should be held responsible when their children suffer because of their actions.
That said, I do believe people should have the right to purchase what they want, as long as it is legal. But I also know that the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration and nearly every other public health organization do not endorse consuming raw milk.
But to buy this product and feed it to your children? Might as well lock them in your car on a 100 degree day while you stop by the casino to try and win the jackpot.
So why did I write this story about a person’s right to eat or drink what s/he wants? Two reasons.
First, the kids who fall ill — and they seem to be the ones always hit the hardest and hospitalized — did not really make an informed choice. Their parents made that choice for them.
Because parents and other adults do not always make the right choice for their kids, we have laws that protect children by requiring childhood immunizations, requiring child restraints in cars, requiring smoke-free public buildings and restaurants, and banning the purchase of liquor for consumption by children.
It should also be against the law to purchase unpasteurized milk for consumption by children. Period.
Second, I want the same choice when I buy beef. I want to choose between pasteurized and unpasteurized. But I don’t have that choice because of the opposition by consumer groups to whole carcass, low dose, irradiation of beef.
For those who rely on the Internet, accurate nor not, for their informed sources, I suggest a milk related web site that is based on science and facts: www.realrawmilkfacts.com
There are those who say they might be just as likely to be stricken with a foodborne illness by eating spinach or ground beef. That may be true, but those products do not have a proven kill step yet, and milk does. To not use this technology to our advantage to protect our children from unnecessary suffering or death should be considered criminal.
Pasteurization of milk has saved thousands of infant lives, and despite the historical difficulty in getting pasteurization to be routine it is now accepted and demanded by over 97 percent of Americans. The increasing number of outbreaks linked to raw milk is a painful reminder of how successful pasteurization has been in preventing unnecessary foodborne illnesses.
Pasteurization of beef carcasses would also save thousands of lives and we should be demanding we have that choice. Some day our grandchildren will look back and wonder how we could have been so ignorant to drink unpasteurized milk and eat unpasteurized beef.
Dr. Richard Raymond is the former Undersecretary for Food Safety, U.S. Department of Agriculture (2005-2008) who works as a food safety and public health consultant.