Somewhat mixed messages are coming from health and agriculture officials in Pennsylvania in relation to antibiotic-resistant Brucella infections traced to unpasteurized, raw milk.

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture sent raw milk producers an alert about “several cases of brucellosis in humans” and suggested they stop vaccinating their cattle for Brucella.

The letter, provided to Food Safety News on Monday by state officials, specifically references a Nov. 21 notice from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that warned the public about Brucella infections traced to raw milk.

CDC’s epidemiologists and state health officials, including those in Pennsylvania, say the only way to avoid exposure via milk is to drink pasteurized milk. The CDC has reported people in at least seven states have become ill in recent months with brucellosis symptoms after drinking raw milk. At least one person in Texas and another in New Jersey have been confirmed with infections linked to raw milk.

Pennsylvania agriculture officials stopped short of contradicting the CDC and Pennsylvania Department of Health in their Nov. 30 letter, but implied ceasing cattle vaccinations is another means to avoid exposing people to the bacteria.

“I these unusual cases, the Brucella isolated is identical to the strain of bacteria used in the RB 51 vaccine,” the Pennsylvania agriculture department officials wrote, referring to the human cases reported by the CDC.

“… PDA (Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture) recommends that producers who sell milk stop immunizing their cattle for Brucella. This is especially important if the herd contains Jersey cattle.”

The letter also urged raw milk producers to consult with their veterinarians about whether they should vaccinate their cattle. Brucella bacteria causes infections and miscarriages in cattle, thus increasing production costs for dairy owners.

Less than a week after the agriculture department letter, Pennsylvania health officials doubled down on their warning about the brucellosis cases traced to raw milk. The Dec. 4 warning repeated the CDC’s advice, urging anyone who drank milk from a New Jersey supplier doing business as Udder Milk to see a doctor for treatment to avoid infection and possible life-long medical problems.

“For the second time in three months, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is warning people who might have consumed contaminated raw milk and milk products to visit their doctor. People who bought and drank raw milk from a company called Udder Milk may have been infected with a rare but potentially serious germ called Brucella abortus RB51,” according to the Pennsylvania health department health advisory.

“While Brucella can cause anyone to become sick, women may suffer miscarriage and other pregnancy complications making it critical for pregnant women who may have consumed the raw milk from Udder Milk to seek medical care immediately.

“Although distribution of Udder Milk products has not been confirmed in Pennsylvania, it is possible that Pennsylvanians may have been exposed to these products.”

Raw milk advocates weigh in
Dave Gumpert, raw milk advocate, had high praise for the Pennsylvania agriculture officials’ letter.

“It’s refreshing to see Pennsylvania regulators provide realistic advice to farmers about reducing the Brucella risk associated with raw milk production, rather than resorting to the hysteria and ideology that has colored the CDC’s approach to the problem,” Gumpert said Monday.

“For farmers, it’s much more realistic to get actionable advice, as opposed to being told that the only solution to the particular risk they are dealing with is to go out of business.”

Readers of Gumpert’s blog jumped in with similar comments shortly after he posted information about the Pennsylvania letter. Many of the comments focused on opposition to vaccinations in general.

Brucellosis Eradication Program
Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture recognized the dangers of Brucella infection and its costs to farmers more than 50 years ago. The department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and state agencies have been using testing and vaccination in the “Brucellosis Eradication Program” since Congress first funded it in 1954.

“At the beginning of the program, brucellosis was widespread throughout U.S. livestock, but eradication efforts have had dramatic results,” according to USDA.

“In 1956, there were 124,000 affected herds found by testing in the United States. By 1992, this number had dropped to 700 herds and the number of affected, domestic herds has declined to single digits since then.”

Similar to the CDC and state health departments, USDA documents cite a link between human infections of brucellosis and the consumption of raw milk. Most cases of brucellosis in the United States are confirmed in people who have traveled to other countries where they consumed unpasteurized milk or other raw dairy products, such as soft cheese.

“Fortunately, the combination of pasteurization of milk and progress in the eradication of the disease in livestock has resulted in substantially fewer human cases (in the U.S.) than in the past,” according to the USDA.

“Precautions against drinking raw milk or eating unpasteurized milk byproducts are also important. Ultimately, the best prevention is to eliminate brucellosis from all animals in the area.”

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)