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Raw milk may pose health risk

PD Staff Published on 05 August 2011

What’s a building block in the food pyramid that’s important for building and maintaining bone mass? It’s milk.

Whether it’s from cows, goats, sheep or another mammal, milk and milk products are an important source of calcium throughout a person’s life.

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Most of the milk sold in the U.S. is pasteurized, a process during which the milk is heated to 161ºF and kept there for 15 seconds. Pasteurization kills harmful bacteria – including salmonella, E. coli and listeria – that can contaminate milk before it gets to your table.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention recommend pasteurization for all milk consumed by people in the U.S.

Pasteurization reduces illness
Pasteurization of milk is an effective means of preventing outbreaks of foodborne illness, including tuberculosis, brucellosis, salmonellosis, scarlet fever and listeriosis. It was first used in the U.S. more than 100 years ago and has been widely used for more than a half-century, says John Sheehan, an FDA expert on the safety of dairy products.

But increasingly, consumers are seeing “raw” milk – and cheeses, yogurts and other products made from it – in specialty shops, farmers’ markets and stores. That’s partly because many Americans have adopted a “back to nature” philosophy about the foods they eat, embracing the idea that locally produced and minimally processed foods are more nutritious.

But in the case of raw milk, FDA says that’s not true. Although the heating process slightly affects a few of the vitamins – thiamine, vitamin B6 and folic acid within the B-complex, and vitamin C, the changes are not significant. Meanwhile, there is a risk that milk could be contaminated by environmental factors such as soil or animal feces, animal diseases or bacteria on an animal’s skin.

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Consumers are also seeing more raw milk products because of the growth of the artisan cheese industry, Sheehan says. These cheeses are made by hand using what are considered to be traditional methods – often on the farm where the milk is produced. Some of these cheesemakers use pasteurized milk in their products, but others use raw milk that could contain disease-causing bacteria.

Some people believe cheese made from raw milk is better for you, but Sheehan says there is no scientific evidence to support that belief.

In countries where pasteurization of milk is less common, outbreaks of foodborne illness attributed to tainted milk or milk products occur more frequently than they do in the U.S. In France, for example, the rate of foodborne illness attributed to milk and milk products was reported to be roughly three times what it is in the U.S., says Sheehan, citing a 2001 study by researcher Marie-Laure De Buyser and other French scientists.

Federal law
Federal law prohibits dairies from distributing raw milk across state lines if it has been packaged for consumers. This means raw milk can only be distributed between states if it’s going to plants to be pasteurized or used to make aged cheese before being sold to consumers. Experts have long believed that aging cheese for 60 days or longer killed disease-causing bacteria. FDA is now reviewing the scientific basis for that belief. PD

—Excerpts from an article posted March 8, 2011, on FDA’s Consumer Updates page.

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