Raw Milk Consumption May Pose Health Threats
Raw milk is milk obtained from a cow, goat, or sheep. It is milk that has not been pasteurized, which means it has not been heated to a specific temperature (161 degrees for 15 seconds) for killing any harmful bacteria present. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention recommend pasteurization for all milk consumed by people in the United States. This measure largely eliminates the risk of getting sick from one of the most important staples of the American diet. Pasteurization was adopted decades ago as a basic public health measure to kill dangerous bacteria. According to the CDC, "more than 800 people in the U.S. have gotten sick from drinking raw milk or eating cheese made from raw milk since 1998." And between 1993 and 2006, "60% of dairy-related outbreaks reported to CDC were linked to raw milk products."
In 1987, the FDA issued a regulation (now a Federal law) that prohibits the sale of raw milk across state lines if it is meant for human consumption. Each state has its own laws about selling raw milk within its borders. About half of the states still allow raw milk to be sold to consumers within the state.
Raw, unpasteurized milk can carry dangerous bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, Campylobacter Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and Listeria, responsible for causing many foodborne illnesses. These bacteria can be especially harmful to pregnant women, children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems. People need to remember that you cannot see, smell, or taste a bottle of raw milk and tell if it's safe to drink. Healthy people of any age can get very sick or even die if they drink raw milk contaminated with harmful bacteria. Symptoms of serious foodborne illness can include vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, flu-like symptoms of fever, headache and body aches. Pasteurization is the only way to kill the bacteria in milk that can make people very sick.
Raw milk contamination can occur in many ways:
- During the milking process
- Dairy animal feces coming in direct contact with the milk
- Mastitis (infection) in a cow's udder
- Cow diseases
- Live bacteria present on the skin of cows
- Environmental (dirt, feces, equipment)
- Insects, rodents, and other animal vectors
Milk is an important and nutritious natural food, but the recurrent outbreaks related to unpasteurized milk warrant us to dispel a few common myths about raw milk.
- Raw milk is healthier and more nutritious.
False. Research shows there is no significant difference in the nutritional values of pasteurized and unpasteurized milk. Drinking raw milk increases the risk for harmful diseases.
- Milk is "safe" if labeled "organic."
False. Even raw organic milk is not safe. Only organic milk that has been pasteurized is safe to drink.
- If animals are raised and grown in sanitary conditions, then their milk and milk products are safe.
Even when every precaution is taken on dairy farms, the environment is always a reservoir for illness-causing germs. Milk from dairy farms is routinely tested for bacteria. Even though the testing may come back negative, it is not a guarantee that the milk is free of bacteria.
- Drinking raw milk can prevent or cure many diseases such as cancer, heart disease, or allergies.
False. There are no health benefits from drinking raw milk that are not present in pasteurized milk.
- Milk products such as soft cheeses and yogurts are safe as long as they come from healthy animals.
False. Even the healthiest animals can be carriers of disease, such as E. coli O 157, Salmonella, and Campylobacter that can contaminate milk.
Steps that can be taken to minimize the risk of getting sick:
- Consume only pasteurized milk and milk products
- Read food labels to make sure the product is pasteurized
- Keep pasteurized dairy products refrigerated at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below
- Dispose of expired products
- Make sure all cheeses consumed are made from pasteurized milk