SOURCE: EHA Consulting Group, Inc.

January 25, 2008 11:28 ET

EHA Consulting Group, Inc. - Raw Milk: Public Health Enemy or Nature's Gift?

Recent Debate on Unpasteurized Milk

WASHINGTON, DC--(Marketwire - January 25, 2008) - The past several years have witnessed increasing debate, regulation and outbreaks of food borne disease (http://www.ehagroup.com/epidemiology/illnesses/) due to raw or unpasteurized milk. Proponents of raw milk tout health benefits that they claim are not possible when milk has been pasteurized -- a process of heating the milk to 161°F for 15-20 seconds, which kills many bacteria that are present in the raw milk. These organisms include Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, E.coli O157:H7 and other E. coli, as well as Campylobacter jejuni, just to name a few.

"Significant Risks" Associated with Raw Milk Consumption

The public health community has been united in stating that consumption of raw milk is not healthful, but, in fact, is harmful. This matter has been litigated and, in the matter of Public Citizen vs. Heckler in 1986, the Federal District Court concluded that the record presents "overwhelming evidence of the risks associated with the consumption of raw milk both certified and otherwise."

The court also stated that the evidence "conclusively shows that raw and certified raw milk are unsafe and there is no longer any question of fact as to whether raw milk is unsafe." This position continues to be supported by most all public health officials in the United States, with some states actually enacting bans on the sale of raw milk. In 1987, the FDA (http://www.fda.gov/) implemented a ban on the interstate sale of raw milk; however, states are free to regulate or prohibit the sale of raw milk.

The "Good Bacteria" Argument

Proponents of raw milk insist that pasteurization kills "good bacteria" and enhances the growth of harmful bacteria. However, there are lots of microbes that are harmless to the cow that are quite harmful to humans. One such organism that people often neglect to identify with raw milk is Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

The individuals who advocate the position that good bacteria are also killed with the pathogenic bacteria have yet to identify any beneficial bacteria that are lost, since scientifically there are none. Some have even stated that pasteurized milk increases the risk of diseases such as cancer and osteoporosis, citing as proof the fact that cancer rates were much lower before pasteurization was mandated. This is obviously misleading, since there is not a single cause of cancer. Our surveillance for cancer, our ability to rapidly detect cancer and treat cancer, and our longevity (with more individuals growing older who may develop cancer) have markedly changed in the past 100 years.

Outbreaks in Recent Years

When one looks at the number of outbreaks of disease, one can state conclusively that there were 39 documented outbreaks associated with unpasteurized milk and cheese products from 1998 to 2005 -- resulting in 831 illnesses, 66 hospitalizations and 1 death (per the CDC's website at http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~acrobat/milksafe.pdf). However, since 2005 there have been numerous other outbreaks. In 2007 alone, there were outbreaks in Pennsylvania, Utah, North Carolina, Georgia and Kansas. Some of the outbreaks were actually multi-state outbreaks with 55% consuming raw milk vs. 45% consuming raw milk cheeses.

Numerous scientific papers have been written documenting these facts and figures. Some states, like California, regulate the sale of raw milk; in fact, a new law that became effective on January 1, 2008, sets the bacteriological standards found in their existing regulations for pasteurized milk to be the same as unpasteurized milk, which is 10 coliform bacteria per milliliter of milk. The goal of this California regulation is to try to have raw milk produced by "clean, healthy cows and processed under good sanitation." These are the same standards that have been adopted in other Western states, including Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Idaho and Washington.

Politics, Special Interest Groups and Milk

As will most politically charged public health issues within the United States, there always seem to be special interest groups who oppose any implementation of public health measures by governmental agencies, no matter how seemingly commonsense. For example, although vaccination of children prior to entering school is commonly recognized as "good health policy," there are those that oppose government from applying health law on individuals for the common good of a population.

In the case of mandated vaccinations, some individuals continue to circumvent mandated vaccinations by claiming religious exemptions. Now, just little over two weeks since the state of California implemented new restrictions on the sale of raw milk, small business interest groups are aiming to repeal these public health laws, claiming that the new regulation on the sale of raw milk will essentially force them out of business.

In the 1960s automobile manufacturers claimed that by the government mandating the installation of seat belts cars, that belt laws would essentially "force them out of business." Obviously, this is not the case, seat belts have saved many lives, mandatory vaccinations have protected the public health of our population and so the implementation of regulations to protect consumers of raw milk will similarly serve to protect and are sound public health policy.

The Bottom Line

So what is the bottom line? First and foremost, milk is nature's gift. It contains significant amounts of valuable nutrients, vitamins and minerals that are essential for both adults and growing children. However, unless milk is pasteurized, it can also cause serious illness and even death.

For example, although the number of septic miscarriages due to Listeria monocytogenes and the consumption of unpasteurized milk cheese called Queso Blanco is not well appreciated, in the currently documented cases, the relative risks for Hispanic women, where this is a cultural food to be consumed by pregnant women for extra protein, is 4 times the rate for white, black and non-Hispanic women in the United States. Certainly, there are cultural barriers that must be addressed, but ultimately we must ensure that sound food-safety science (http://www.ehagroup.com/food/) and, ultimately, food-safety legislation validate perceived health benefits by the general public. So next time you got milk, make sure it's pasteurized!

EHA Consulting Group has over 20 years of experience providing food safety consulting (http://www.ehagroup.com/food/) to clients before, during, and after a crisis. Get more information on infectious disease epidemiology at http://www.ehagroup.com/epidemiology/ or check out EHA's Bad Bug Blog at http://www.badbugblog.com/.

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