The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are reminding consumers of the dangers of drinking milk that has not been pasteurized, known as raw milk. Raw milk potentially contains a wide variety of harmful bacteria – including Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7, Listeria, Campylobacter and Brucella – that may cause illness and possibly death.
Consuming raw milk may be harmful to health. From 1998 to May 2005 CDC identified 45 outbreaks of foodborne illness that implicated unpasteurized milk, or cheese made from unpasteurized milk. These outbreaks accounted for 1,007 illnesses, 104 hospitalizations, and two deaths. This is based on information in CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report for the week of March 2, 2007. The actual number of illnesses was almost certainly higher because not all cases of illness are recognized and reported.
Consumers who become ill after consuming raw milk, and pregnant women who believe they consumed contaminated raw milk or cheese made from raw milk, should see a doctor or other health care provider immediately.
Symptoms of illness caused by raw milk vary depending on which harmful bacteria are present. Symptoms may include but are not limited to: vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever, headache and body ache.
Most healthy people will recover from illness caused by harmful bacteria in raw milk or in foods made with raw milk within a short period of time. But some individuals can develop symptoms that are chronic, severe, or even life-threatening. Illnesses caused by pathogens found in raw milk can be especially severe for pregnant women, the elderly, infants, young children and people with weakened immune systems.
Since 1987, in order to better protect consumers from such risks, FDA has required all milk packaged for human consumption be pasteurized before being delivered for introduction into interstate commerce. Pasteurization, a process that heats milk to a specific temperature for a set period of time, kills bacteria responsible for diseases such as listeriosis, salmonellosis, campylobacteriosis, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, diphtheria and brucellosis. FDA’s pasteurization requirement also applies to other milk products, with the exception of a few aged cheeses.
Proponents of drinking raw milk often claim that raw milk is more nutritious than pasteurized milk and that raw milk is inherently antimicrobial, thus making pasteurization unnecessary. Research has shown that these claims are myths. There is no meaningful nutritional difference between pasteurized and raw milk, and raw milk does not contain compounds that will kill harmful bacteria.
In fact, raw milk, no matter how carefully produced, may be unsafe. The CDC, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments, the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, the Association of Food and Drug Officials and other organizations have endorsed the pasteurization of milk and restriction of the sale of products containing raw milk. Because even pasteurized milk contains low levels of nonpathogenic bacteria that can cause food to spoil, it is important to keep pasteurized milk refrigerated.