Thursday, June 5, 2008

It had to happen!

In the USA, the argument about raw milk still rages. We now see the spectacle of lawyers claiming that consumers are being deprived of their rights to choose their food, while others sue the suppliers for selling dangerous milk.

The raw milk lobby claims that pasteurization robs the milk of its nutritional value and the natural enzymes that help the human digestive system. I am not aware of any scientific evidence to support this. They also vociferously claim that pasteurization kills the “good bacteria”. The zealous consumers claim that their rights are being trampled if they are prevented from buying the product. The regulators point to the dangers of consuming raw milk, such as the diseases caused by Salmonella, Campylobacter, Escherichia coli, Listeria and others, a point conveniently ignored by the raw milk proponents.

The hazards of consuming raw milk have been known for a long time. In Ontario around 1900, over 10% of all childhood tuberculosis was thought to be caused by unpasteurized milk. The rate of tuberculosis infection and many other milk-borne diseases in children fell dramatically after enactment of a law in 1938 requiring milk to be pasteurized; this was hailed as a major achievement.

The fact is that between 1998 and 2005, a total of 45 outbreaks resulting in more than 1,000 illnesses, 104 hospitalizations and two deaths due to raw milk or soft raw milk cheese were reported to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. There have been more recent, high-profile cases. Pathogens were found in 13 percent of bulk tank raw milk samples by a survey of Pennsylvania dairy farms in 2006. In California, 2008, new regulations set a limit of 10 coliforms per millilitre of raw milk. Raw milk suppliers maintain that the regulation will put them out of business, which suggests to me that they feel unable to meet this specification. But it's the same standard used for pasteurized milk. <For an explanation of the use of coliforms, see "Is hamburger a greater risk for E. coli" this blog, posted 3rd May 2008>.

Farmers who are selling raw milk are able to charge a significant premium for their product and understandably wish to continue supply. However, nothing comes without a price, and the right to sell a particular food product imposes certain responsibilities. Some American consumers have contracted serious disease from drinking raw milk. Unfortunately, children have no choice in the source of their milk and several have suffered haemolytic uremic syndrome (which has a 90% mortality rate without treament) and a number have required kidney transplants. The suppliers are now being sued.

In New Zealand, NZFSA has recently renewed its warning to consumers about raw milk cheeses, which have recently been approved for sale here. People with compromised immune systems, the elderly or pregnant women are urged to avoid these products.

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