Commentary from the Food Safety Network’s Dr. Douglas Powell
In May, 1943, Edsel Bryant Ford, son of auto magnate Henry Ford, died at the age of 49 in Detroit, of what some claimed was a broken heart. Biology, however, decreed that Ford died of undulant fever, apparently brought on by drinking unpasteurized milk from the Ford dairy herd, at the behest of his father’s mistaken belief that all things natural must be good.
Sixty years later, raw, unpasteurized milk is gaining in popularity for many of the same reasons as the broader organic and natural foods movement: some people think it’s healthier, some people think it tastes better, and for some people it’s part of their religion. And some people get sick.
In June, more than 58 people in Wisconsin became ill after eating unpasteurized cheese curds contaminated with Campylobacter jejuni. The same bacteria sickened five people in Colorado in January after they drank raw milk from a dairy in Larimer County, Colo. In Dec. 2005, the
Pima County Health Department in Arizona reported salmonella contamination in unpasteurized, raw milk produced by Colorado City’s Meadowayne Dairy. The milk was sold at several natural and health food stores in the Tucson area. Earlier last year the New York State health department warned against consumption of some imported Mexican cheeses made from unpasteurized milk after identifying 35 cases from 2001 to 2004, including one infant death in
2004, attributed to Mycobacterium bovis, a form of TB found in cattle.
But most worrisome are outbreaks caused by contamination with E. coli O157:H7.
In Canada last April, four people including two children were were hospitalized with bloody diarrhea and severe abdominal cramps caused by E. coli O157:H7 after drinking raw milk purchased from the back of a vehicle. In December 2005, 18 people including six children in Washington state were infected with E. coli O157:H7 from drinking unpasteurized milk. Two of the kids almost died.
While most people recover from E.coli O157:H7, up to 10 per cent of cases go on to develop hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which is characterized by kidney failure. It’s not fun. Georgia Frankenberg of Ohio, a registered sanitarian, milk producer and former connoisseur, asks, “We won’t allow our children to eat raw meat, raw eggs or — heaven forbid — raw poultry. Why would we allow them to drink raw milk?”
Frankenberg ended the raw milk flow to herself and her young son following the infamous Jack in the Box E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in 1993 which sickened 600 and killed four.
Regardless, the glowing media coverage of all things natural abounds. Last year the Associated Press gushed, “Kelsey Kozack’s kitchen is a dairy wonderland. Fresh cheeses, yogurt and quarts of fresh raw milk abound, all compliments of Iris, a gentle tan cow who grazes on the family’s seven-acre property.” Kelsey was quoted as saying, “After you’ve been drinking raw milk for a while, you can’t drink store-bought again. It has a lot more flavor and is healthier.” Tell that to the kids in hospital with a potentially fatal illness.
The various states have various rules governing the personal consumption or sale of raw milk, all which can be circumvented. For example, selling raw, unpasteurized milk in Ohio is illegal, but that doesn’t stop enterprising folks from selling the illicit product under the guise of pet food.
A good rule of thumb: do not feed your children pet food. The premiums people pay for raw milk do little to ensure a safe product, although with regulations that establish standards for the
proper testing of milk and inspection of the farm and milk bottling room, it may — and that’s an extremely strong may — be possible to offer a safe, unpasteurized product to the consuming public. But the onus is on producers to show the rest of us that data.
Adults, do whatever you think works, but please, don’t impose your dietary regimes on your kids.
Dr. Douglas Powell is scientific director of the Food Safety Network at Kansas State University.