Outbreak – Despite bacterial illnesses blamed on the lack of pasteurization, raw milk has an unwavering following
Sunday, December 18, 2005
The arguments get so passionate, it’s hard to remember that both sides are talking about the same iconic glass of milk.
Pasteurization of milk — a quick blast of heat to kill potentially deadly bacteria — has been one of the no-brainers of public health for nearly a century. Health officials say it makes milk safe and delays spoilage without markedly reducing the drink’s nutritional value.
A small but vocal minority of raw milk fans aren’t buying.
“I consider raw milk medicine for me and my family,” says Juanita Stiles, 66, of Vancouver. “I believe in fresh, raw anything over changed, dead, chemically contaminated and synthetic foods.” She also opposes vaccinations against childhood diseases and avoids medical doctors.
Investigators blame raw milk for last week’s outbreak of bacterial illness in 17 people, including 11 children younger than 14. They now confirm Dee Creek Farm in Woodland, Wash., as the source. The 17 reported cases comprise 14 in Southwest Washington and three in Clatsop County, Ore. Two of the children remained hospitalized in critical condition Saturday.
Raw milk advocates such as Stiles associate pasteurization with all things bad, from the death of the small farm to tooth decay and cancer.
Public health officials say there is no factual basis for such claims. Pasteurization of milk, they say, is a public health bargain that destroys the bacteria that can sicken children, the elderly and anyone with a weak immune system, such as cancer and AIDS patients.
Pasteurization wipes out several types of potentially deadly bacteria in raw milk. They include E. coli 0157:H7 — the germ that caused last week’s outbreak — and salmonella, campylobacter and listeria.
“These are bad bugs,” says Jessie Pavlinac, a registered dietitian and manager of clinical nutrition services at Oregon Health & Science University. They can cause bloody diarrhea, stomach cramps, fever, headache, vomiting, exhaustion and, in severe cases, kidney failure.
Milk can become tainted on the farm when fecal matter and other contaminants stick to a cow’s udder and shed bacteria into the milk.
Oregon has reported no outbreaks like the one in Washington since it banned retail sales of raw milk in 1999. The last outbreak sickened 14 people in 1993.
Neither Oregon nor Washington allows sales of raw milk in stores. Oregon allows on-the-premises sales, but no advertising, by dairy farmers with three or fewer cows.
Washington allows direct sales by a small number of licensed dairies — currently, six. Dee Creek Farm is not licensed.
More than 300 people in the United States became seriously ill from drinking raw milk or eating cheese made from raw milk in 2001, and nearly 200 in 2002, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We do not support consumption of raw milk, because there’s more risk,” says Ron McKay, head of the Oregon Agriculture Department’s food safety division. Because small dairies selling raw milk directly to buyers in Oregon do not require a license, there’s no way to know how many do so, he says.
Surveys suggest up to 1 percent of Oregonians drink unpasteurized milk, says Emilio DeBess, Oregon’s public health veterinarian.
One reason may be the growing demand for organic produce, DeBess says. Some people erroneously associate raw milk with the appeal of natural, pesticide-free fruits and vegetables. But organic milk — widely available in stores in Oregon — is pasteurized.
The federal Food and Drug Administration bans transport of raw milk for human consumption across state lines, but in-state regulations vary widely. Some states forbid any sale of raw milk. California allows stores to sell raw milk from licensed dairies. Others states allow it to be sold for pets only.
The FDA says pasteurization retains the major milk proteins and vitamins, such as thiamine, folate, B-12 and riboflavin. Vitamin D, which is added to processed milk, is not found in significant levels in raw milk.
“Pasteurization scares people for some reason,” says OHSU’s Pavlinac, who grew up on a farm in North Dakota. “Not many, but a few.”
The Weston A. Price Foundation, a self-described nonprofit nutrition education group based in Washington, D.C., promotes raw milk worldwide as better for consumers and farmers than pasteurized milk. The group has 7,500 members and gets no money from industry or government, says President Sally Fallon.
The group’s Web site calls ultra-pasteurization “a violent process that takes milk from a chilled temperature to above the boiling point in less than two seconds.”
In fact, pasteurization heats milk to about 160 degrees, well below the boiling point, but hot enough to destroy bacteria.
The Price foundation also says pasteurization “kills beneficial bacteria, promotes pathogens” and is linked to a host of ailments, including allergies, asthma, tooth decay, growth problems, osteoporosis, arthritis, heart disease and cancer.
But Pavlinac of OHSU says although pasteurization reduces heat-sensitive vitamins, such as vitamin C and thiamine, by 10 percent to 30 percent, the effect is slight because milk isn’t a significant source of either.
“To say pasteurization keeps you from getting adequate nutrients you can’t get elsewhere — the data don’t support that, and the risk (of raw milk) certainly outweighs any benefit.”
Don Colburn: 503-294-5124; firstname.lastname@example.org