Raw Milk Quarantine Lifted, but Debate Rages

California food safety officials recently lifted the statewide quarantine on all raw milk products produced by Organic Pastures of Fresno County, a little more than a week after it was imposed in the wake of 10 cases of Campylobacter-related illness linked to the dairy’s products.

It was the third time the dairy had run afoul of food safety. In late 2011, five children became ill from E. coli 0157:H7-contaminated milk, and Campylobacter turned up in the dairy’s raw cream in 2008.

But the debate over the risks involved in consuming raw milk is far from over:

– In Oregon, the Dairy Farmers Association is calling for tighter restrictions on the sale of unpasteurized milk after an April E. coli outbreak that sickened nearly 20 people was traced to a farm in the town of Wilsonville. Four children were hospitalized, suffering from hemolytic uremic syndrome.

– Raw milk has also been linked to an E. coli outbreak in Missouri that has sickened at least 14 people, including a 2-year-old who developed hemolytic uremic syndrome.

– In Minnesota, a farmer accused of breaking state law against the off-farm sale of raw milk goes on trial in July. Minnesota law allows for the “occasional” sale of raw milk products at the farm where they’re produced.

A study published in February by authors from the CDC found that unpasteurized milk accounts for the vast majority of foodborne illnesses linked to dairy products. Raw milk is 150 times more likely to cause illness than pasteurized milk and leads to 13 times more hospitalizations, according to Barbara Mahon, MD, senior author on the paper and deputy director of enteric diseases at the CDC. The paper appeared in the February edition of Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Laws on where and how raw milk may be sold vary widely. Some states, like Nevada, Wisconsin, and Iowa, ban its sale altogether; other states allow only farm sale, and still others, like Maine, Idaho, and California, have legalized raw milk for retail sale.

Diseases linked to raw milk are nothing new, of course. Kansas State University food scientist Doug Powell, PhD, has long heard the tale of the time his mother, now 71, developed undulant fever after drinking raw milk from the cows on her father’s farm. “My grandfather sold all the cows the next day,” he said.

“People say, ‘I’m not going to stop eating peanut butter, and that killed nine people,’” Dr. Powell observed. “But the difference with raw milk is that there’s an easy solution to avoid illness. Nutrient loss has been documented when you cook lettuce as opposed to eating it raw, but pasteurization is so easy.” And while pasteurization does change the chemical composition of the milk, its effect on nutritional value is much less clear than, say, cooking lettuce.

“And kids are disproportionately hit in raw milk outbreaks,” Dr. Powell added. “If you want to pay extra for raw milk and believe in it so fervently for yourself, fine. But after so many outbreaks over so many years, be careful about imposing it on kids.” What’s more, he asked, “Do we really want to be burdening public health officials in dealing with these outbreaks when they are so easily preventable?”

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