Co-authored by Brian Gross
When people consider the potential sources of food borne illness, they commonly think of raw meat and contaminated produce. Food, however, is not the only source of food borne illness. In fact, one of the most common and dangerous sources of food borne illness is raw milk. Recently, a group of sixteen fourth graders and two adults at a Wisconsin elementary school became ill after they consumed raw milk at a school function. The individuals who consumed the raw milk had various symptoms, including diarrhea, abdominal cramping, nausea and vomiting. Reportedly, a parent of one of the students brought raw milk to the event which was obtained from a bulk tank on the dairy farm of a relative. Laboratory tests performed by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services linked the Campylobacter bacteria in the stool of the individuals who became ill with Campylobacter bacteria found in milk samples taken from the dairy farm from which the raw milk originated.
Raw milk is capable of causing serious illness or even death, as it commonly carries bacteria, salmonella, E. coli, parasites and/or viruses. Unlike pasteurized milk, raw milk has not been heated in order to eliminate any potential illness causing germs. Nevertheless, there exists a growing market for raw milk amongst consumers who believe that pasteurization eliminates valuable enzymes and nutrients. In fact, dairy farms like the Organic Valley, an organic milk cooperative which includes approximately 1,600 dairy farms, now operate on a “dual system,” in which they supply raw milk both for pasteurization and for consumption. Moreover, it is believed that in the United States nearly three million people regularly consume raw milk.
The danger of raw milk is that unlike meat, poultry and fish, it is a “ready to consume” product, which means that it is not expected to be cooked or prepared before consumption. Thus, despite being produced in an environment which lends itself to fecal contamination, raw milk does not undergo any treatment to prevent illness associated with such contamination. Moreover, milk is a main ingredient in many foods whose preparation does not involve cooking or other processes which would rid them of any contaminants, including unpasteurized cheese and yogurt.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that from 1998 to 2008 there were 86 outbreaks caused by consumption of raw milk or raw milk products, resulting in 1,676 illnesses, 191 hospitalizations and 2 deaths. Furthermore, 82% of the dairy product related illnesses reported to the CDC between 1973 and 2008 involved the consumption of unpasteurized milk or cheese. Clearly, raw milk is a common and dangerous source of food borne illness.
Raw milk is no different from any other source of food borne illness in that the best form of prevention, aside from pasteurization, is good hygienic practice during milking, packaging and transportation. Unlike other foods, however, even the best practices cannot entirely eliminate illness causing contaminants from the product. Accordingly, if you are going to sell, serve, or use raw milk as an ingredient in your products, know your source and understand that the inherent risks of food borne illness can be minimized through good hygienic practices, but not entirely eliminated.