CDC raw milk facts illustrationBased on statistics from the five-year period 2009-2014, people who drink unpasteurized, raw milk are 840 times more likely to contract a foodborne illness than those who drink pasteurized milk.

The statistics, included in a research report scheduled for publication in the upcoming June issue of “Emerging Infectious Diseases” also show raw milk drinkers are 45 times more likely to be hospitalized if they get sick than people who become ill from drinking pasteurized milk.

“Unpasteurized milk, consumed by only 3.2 percent of the (U.S.) population, and cheese, consumed by only 1.6 percent of the population, caused 96 percent of illnesses caused by contaminated dairy products,” according to the report scheduled for June publication by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The growing popularity of unpasteurized milk in the United States raises public health concerns… As consumption of unpasteurized dairy products grows, illnesses will increase steadily; a doubling in the consumption of unpasteurized milk or cheese could increase outbreak-related illnesses by 96 percent.”

In response to pressure from those who want to sell and drink raw, unpasteurized milk some state legislatures have relaxed restrictions on unpasteurized dairy products in recent years. Federal law prohibits the sale of raw milk across state lines.

The research team, led by epidemiologist Solenne Costard, reported the raw milk movement and the state actions to legalize it will likely prove to be a dangerous — potentially deadly — combination in the coming years.

“Despite a decrease in dairy consumption in the United States, recent studies suggest that over the past 15 years the number of outbreaks associated with unpasteurized dairy products has increased. In parallel with this increase, an easing of regulations has facilitated greater access of consumers to unpasteurized milk,” Costard and her three colleagues wrote.

“The number of states where the sale of unpasteurized milk is prohibited decreased to 20 in 2011 from 29 in 2004. This trend toward increased availability of unpasteurized dairy products raises public health concerns, especially because raw milk consumers include children.”

The researchers looked at illnesses from four pathogens commonly found in raw milk: Shiga toxin–producing E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, and Campylobacter. Based on public health statistics from 2011-2014, the team found unpasteurized dairy products are responsible for almost all of the 761 illnesses and 22 hospitalizations in the United States that occur annually because of dairy-related outbreaks.

illustration raw milk pathogens“More than 95 percent of these illnesses are salmonellosis and campylobacteriosis,” according to the research report. “Consumers of unpasteurized milk and cheese are a small proportion of the U.S. population — 3.2 percent and 1.6 percent, respectively — but compared with consumers of pasteurized dairy products, they are 838.8 times more likely to experience an illness and 45.1 times more likely to be hospitalized.”

Despite those statistics and warnings ongoing warnings from the CDC, Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture and state and local health departments, some people believe unpasteurized milk is more nutritious.

The popularity of so-called natural foods, which are not defined by government nutrition laws and regulations, is part of the problem, according to the researchers.

“However, in contrast to some perceptions, natural food products are not necessarily safer than conventional ones, as evidenced by higher rates of foodborne illnesses associated with unpasteurized dairy products,” according to the research report.

“If all milk and cheese consumed were pasteurized, an average of 732 illnesses and 21 hospitalizations would be prevented per year in the United States. … Therefore, outbreak-related illnesses will increase steadily as unpasteurized dairy consumption grows, likely driven largely by salmonellosis and campylobacteriosis.”

The research team included Luis Espejo, Huybert Groenendaal, and Francisco J. Zagmutt in addition to Costard. Their work was was supported in part by a USDA Special Research Grant and the Pennsylvania Agricultural Experiment Station.

For details on how raw milk legalization efforts in several states are going, please see: “Raw milk still looking for wins as legislative season nears end”