Outbreak from Raw Milk Underscores Importance of Pasteurization

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Department of Health experts say at least eight cases of illness among children in East Tennessee are likely related to drinking “raw” or unpasteurized milk. The investigation has identified a specific type of Escherichia coli O157 as the cause of at least three of the illnesses.

“Some people who consume raw milk because they believe it is healthier than pasteurized milk are putting themselves and others they share it with at risk for a range of serious illnesses,” said TDH Commissioner John Dreyzehner, MD, MPH. “Raw milk is 150 times more likely to cause a foodborne illness than pasteurized milk and can be life-threatening to some, particularly the young. Those who consume raw milk are eroding years of progress in reducing dangerous, preventable illnesses.”

In addition to Escherichia coli O157, other harmful bacteria that can be found in unpasteurized milk from cows, goats and other mammals include Salmonella and Campylobacter. Complications from drinking these pathogens include diarrheal disease; Guillain-Barre syndrome, leading to paralysis; and Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, which causes kidney failure.

“While some adults may be able to tolerate bacteria found in unpasteurized milk or food products made with raw milk, children, older adults, pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems can be in great danger,” said Deputy State Epidemiologist John Dunn, DVM, PhD.

Early symptoms of raw milk-related illnesses can include upset stomach, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea and flu-like symptoms including fever, headache and body aches. People who have any of these symptoms after drinking raw milk should see their health care provider and notify their local health department.

The Tennessee Department of Agriculture licenses and inspects nearly 400 commercial dairies in Tennessee which produce milk that is safely pasteurized and processed for human consumption. Pasteurized dairy products from commercial dairies are safe and nutritious and are not implicated in the recent cluster of illnesses.

“Despite the cleanest barns and the best efforts of farmers, raw milk can contain harmful bacteria,” said Tennessee Department of Agriculture Commissioner Julius Johnson. “We all need to understand raw milk can be contaminated with deadly microorganisms. Pasteurization kills these without significantly affecting the taste or nutritional quality of milk.”

Since 1987, the Food and Drug Administration has prohibited distribution of raw milk across state lines for direct sales to consumers. Some people take extreme measures to obtain raw milk, even buying and consuming raw milk labeled as pet food or investing in shared ownership of a milk cow or goat. Although it is legal in Tennessee for individuals to consume raw milk from their own animals, it doesn’t change the risk to their health.

To eliminate risk of infection, the Tennessee Department of Health suggests consumers read the labels of all milk and cheese products to make sure they buy only those which have been pasteurized. Pasteurization, a process developed 149 years ago, kills harmful bacteria by simply heating milk for a specific amount of time.