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1808 PD: Got raw milk?

Ben Yale Published on 09 December 2008

You’re sitting at your desk and looking over the most recent lab reports from your farm.

Somatic cell counts (SCC) are well below 200,000 and both the Lab Pasteurized Count (LPC) and Standard Plate Count (SPC) are low as well. A recent test of cows shows your herd is negative for bovine TB. As you compute the quality bonus in your head the phone rings. It is a reporter from a local radio station, and she wants to talk to you about the safety of drinking unpasteurized milk. You think to yourself, “I have done it and I am fine, my animals’ health is fine and look at these tests!” So, what do you tell the reporter, and, through her, the public?

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There is no doubt about it. American dairymen produce not only the healthiest, but the safest food. With miles of stainless steel snaking through parlors and barns, cleaning-in-place (CIP) systems, pre- and post-milk teat treatments, single-use towels and on and on, we make a safe product. The rules for handling the milk from the farm to the plant ensure it is kept safe, and the plant processes the milk in the cleanest of environments. Finally, the plant pasteurizes it. Is it safe because of what I do at the farm, is it the pasteurization or is it both? That is the reporter’s real question.

But as much as we take it for granted today, the milk safety we have today is a only recent characteristic. Milk, healthy in its pure state, has been the source of illness in the past. During the early 20th century, experts estimate that bovine tuberculosis was responsible for more deaths of farm animals than all other causes combined. Further, during that same time there was a relatively high prevalence of TB among humans. One-fifth of humans with TB had bovine TB, and the leading cause of human infection was drinking unpasteurized milk.

In 1900, 148,000 peopled died in the U.S. from tuberculosis, the number one cause of death. One out of every nine deaths were from tuberculosis. It was estimated that one in ten of the deaths were from bovine TB, or 15,000 people per year. Losses at that rate today would mean almost 50,000 people per year dying from bovine TB. It is not just TB. Even as late as 1938, the milk-borne bacteria were the cause of 25 percent of the disease outbreaks from infected food and water.

The good news is no one is dying of bovine TB today in the U.S., and TB deaths are a few hundred. Less than 1 percent of disease outbreaks from infected food come from milk and fluid milk products. This disease’s presence in humans has been reduced as a result of the bovine TB eradication program, advances in sanitation and hygiene from the farm to the store, the discovery of effective drugs and the pasteurization of milk. Of these, three are in the hands of the dairy industry and dairy farmers.

TB is not the only disease carried by milk. In addition to tuberculosis these can be found: salmonellosis, campylobacteriosis, brucellosis, yersiniosis, listeriosis, staphylococcal enterotoxin poisoning, streptococcal infections, E. coli 0157:H7 infection and rabies. Rabies? In the 1990s there were two reported cases of rabid cows’ milk being pooled with other milk and offered to consumers on a raw, unpasteurized basis. Rabies is a zoonotic disease and can spread from one animal to another and to humans. All of the 80 persons who drank the milk received rabies shots. Pasteurization kills rabies before it gets to them and is a whole lot less painful or expensive than shots.

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Though pasteurization is done at the bottling plant, it really begins at the farm. Pasteurization is the final defense in a number of processes designed to keep infection out of the milk. When all of the efforts fail and bacteria survive to the plant, they are killed in the pasteurization.

The national pasteurization movement is not even a hundred years old. The first ordinance was passed in 1924, and over the years it has been developed and adopted by every milk licensing and inspection agency in the U.S. Known as the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO), it provides the detailed rules associated with the handling of milk from the farm to the store. You can download the most recent version at www.cfsan.fda.gov/~ear/pmo03.html.

Fast-forward 90 years. Even if the herd is healthy, the whole process of milking is done in an environment that is conducive to the growth of bacteria. The cows are in the presence of manure all the time. Even the cleanest milking parlor has manure in it as cows defecate while they are there. Keeping the teats, the milking equipment, the lines, the people, the tanks and everything else clean in that environment is a challenge. There can be no slip-ups. One sloppy milking and the whole silo is at risk of being infected.

Dairymen, as a whole, take great pride in how they handle this seeming contradiction – producing a wholesome, pure, quality and healthy product in the midst of, well, you know what. With a real concern for herd health, quality, modern technology, instant cooling of the milk and plain hard work, the quality of milk continues to improve year after year. DHI reported that in 2007, the average SCC was 276, well below earlier years and far below the “acceptable” 750,000 of the PMO. LPC and SPC results also continue to improve.

This higher quality translates into higher sales and value. Continued high-quality milk ensures that consumers will keep coming back for the great product. If there is a concern about the safety of the milk, that will no longer be the case. Consumers will be “spooked” and stay away, some for awhile, some forever, but in any event, fewer gallons of milk sold. Maintaining the quality of the product is everyone’s task for everyone’s benefit.

Many dairy farmers and their family drink milk from the bulk tank. The two biggest reasons are convenience and taste. In a Penn State study farmers who were aware of the health risks of raw milk did not drink it. Smart dairy farmers prohibit their employees from drinking it.

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But for the non-farm consumer, the general reason is purported health benefits of drinking the milk unpasteurized. The health claims are legion, and I will not give then credence by repeating them. But none of these claims have been scientifically substantiated. More than that, if there was some identifiable characteristic of unpasteurized milk that is better than pasteurized, it probably could be duplicated in a safer form. One of the arguments for raw milk is because it is not homogenized. But homogenization and pasteurization are separate processes, and you certainly can have unhomogenized but pasteurized milk.

So, back to the reporter. She becomes more pointed: If you, your father and his family drank without problems from the bulk tank without pasteurization, and milk is of higher quality today than it was then, why isn’t drinking it from the tank safe today? Assuming that it is true that there were no problems, the answer is this: Absence of proof that the milk caused someone illness is not proof of the absence of any disease-causing infection of the milk. That is to say, just because no one has gotten sick yet, does not mean that no one will get sick ever. Look at those who drank milk from the rabid cow.

Despite the high level of quality, milk produced at the farm is not sterile. Several studies have been done of bulk tank milk. A study in 1999 in the Upper Midwest found that coliform bacteria were found in almost two-thirds of the tanks and noncoliform bacteria in nearly three-fourths. In 2002, Penn State inspected 248 dairy herds and tested the raw milk in the tanks for pathogens. The study showed that Campylobacter jejuni, Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli, Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella and Yersina enterocolitica were present in anywhere from 2 to 6 percent of the raw bulk tank milk samples. The rate of pathogens in milk seems low, but it exists. It only takes one infection to seriously compromise the health of an individual. The elderly and young children are especially susceptible to health problems from unpasteurized milk.

So what do you tell the reporter? Here is a start: We and every other dairyman do our best to produce the highest quality product, but it is a raw product. Decades of research and experience have shown that pasteurization makes it the safest product. There are hundreds of years of experience showing that unpasteurized milk makes people sick and even kills them. There is no research that says that raw milk is better. So the choice is proven safety, or taking a known and proven risk with an unproven theory. Now what do you say to your family, yourself?

We should not sell a product that is anything less than safe. Milk is good for you, pasteurized milk is safe for you and sales of safe milk brings you and other dairymen money. PD

Ben Yale
Attorney at Yale Law Office

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