A study in Northern Italy found that some unpasteurized milk sold from vending machines contained potentially harmful levels of pathogens and did not meet public health standards.

The Salmonella, Campylobacter jejuni, E. coli O157 and Mycobacterium avium subsp. paratuberculosis (Map) detected in the milk “pose a clear risk for consumers and could have serious public health consequences,” the researchers wrote. Results of their study appeared in the March 23 issue of the journal Foodborne Pathogens and Disease.

Vending machines are used to dispense raw milk in some European countries, and raw milk advocates in the U.S. sometimes point to this easy availability as evidence that the unpasteurized milk must be safe. The sale of raw milk — latte crudo — from self-service automatic vending machines has been allowed in Italy since 2004.

The investigation looked at 33 farms in the Emilia-Romagna region of Northern Italy that together sell about 3,500 liters of unpasteurized milk daily via 60 vending machines. From January to July 2010, researchers collected 66 samples from farm bulk tanks and 66 from vending machines in the first part of the study, and then another 99 samples from vending machines in the second part of the study.

The samples were analyzed using various test methods, from the standard culture method of detection (ISO) to polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests and also the modified Bacteriological Analytical Manual cultural method (mBAM).

All pathogens investigated were detected in the raw milk sold from vending machines; 5 percent of the samples had at least one pathogen. However, none of the pathogens was detected using the official ISO tests — the method the area’s regulators rely on to check the safety of the milk and order recalls, if necessary, leading the researchers to suggest that such tests are not sensitive enough. The pathogens were detected using the PCR and mBAM tests.

“Given that extremely small numbers of organisms are present and that they may not be evenly distributed in the milk,” the researchers said ISO is “consequently not appropriate” as the official method for testing raw milk.

They point out that even extremely small amounts of bacteria may be infectious and pathogens may proliferate after testing to levels that pose unacceptable risks. The study notes four disease outbreaks — two due to Campylobacter and two to E. coli O157:H7 —   linked to consumption of unpasteurized milk in the Emilia-Romagna region, despite prior testing conducted at the farms.

In the study, another concern was that three samples of raw milk tested positive for Mycobacterium avium subsp. paratuberculosis, also known as Map.  Map causes Johne’s disease in cattle and other ruminants, and has been suspected as a possible cause of Crohn’s disease in humans. The researchers said the positivity of 3 percent of samples suggests that “raw milk consumption is a significant source of Map exposure for consumers.”

In comparison with milk samples collected from bulk tanks, the milk samples collected from vending machines showed a significant increase of total bacterial count “meaning that raw milk was mishandled during distribution and sale,” perhaps due to lack of consistent temperature control, “which may result in an increase of pathogenic microbial load, raising further questions on raw milk safety,” the authors wrote.

The researchers concluded that  “raw milk sold in vending machines in the considered

province does not have an optimal microbiological quality and does not meet criteria fixed by law in terms of safety for hygienic quality and for exposition to all the pathogenic

bacteria investigated in the study.”

In order to ensure consumers’ safety, the researchers advised “a new approach” to avoid mishandling raw milk being transported from farm to vending machines, and also that the milk should undergo adequate testing at the farms to determine if it is contaminated.

  • telling that the study does not so much as mention a single incidence of an individual made sick from such milk. Geepers … surely they’d be falling over in the streets?! Or could it be that such milk actually cultivates immunity to those very pathogens in the population which consumes it! What a concept!!
    Let’s see the same assessment for M A P on “homo milk” on supermarket shelves in America … where the dairymen admit that half the animals in their herds test positive for Johnes’ disease. But they sure don’t say that out loud!! It’s the Big Dark SEcret of Big Dairy, and the main reason the Campaign for REAL MILK is an idea whose time has come

  • Michael Bulger

    Gordon, the study mentions four outbreaks connected to unpasteurized milk in the Emilia-Romagna region. Perhaps you should reevaluate your hypothesis.

  • Sara

    Raw milk advocates don’t point out raw milk vending machines to prove how safe raw milk is, but to help rational people understand that the rest of the world is not afraid of raw milk like Americans.
    Why is it that so many Americans (or is it just American food agencies and industries) fear raw milk and there’s a negative article (or ten) written about it daily? While other countries feel it’s safe enough to put in a vending machine? All the while 70,000 people dying in the U.S. every year from superbugs, because of all the antibiotics used on people with poor immunity and on lifestock in food production. Are these deaths are accepted as a necessary sacrifice in progress toward sterile food?
    Wake up people, we don’t need sterile food. We need real food, and foods like raw milk promote immunity rather than destroy it. It’s time Americans woke up and cared about the very real dangers in our food system, rather than making a villain out of something that could be a healthy step out of this mess we’re in.

  • Jen

    Gordon S Watson, check out recent articles on these vending machines. People ARE falling over in the streets.

  • Sibilla

    As far as the paper above mentioned is concerned first thing no people are falling dead on the street in the Emilia Romagna because having drunk raw milk. Moreover no outbreaks have been declared, officially or not, because no one has got ill after having drunk the milk collected and analyzed in the study.
    I speak with some authority, having designed the study, that however is not yet finished. The paper’s authors belong to official and academic lab institutions and have simply performed the analysis, but it has been a surprise to find this paper, merely reporting partial results. The results are partial because A) the study is not yet finished and B) the data analysis lacks of all the epidemiological section of the study, whose aim is to search for association and/or correlation between the microbiological quality of raw milk and a series of risk factors investigated at the farm and herd level.