Raw milk: Treat or threat?

Bacteria-tainted raw milk from the Family Cow, a dairy farm in south-central Pennsylvania, sickened 81 people last year.
Bacteria-tainted raw milk from the Family Cow, a dairy farm in south-central Pennsylvania, sickened 81 people last year. (The Family Cow)
Posted: April 30, 2013

It was the post that blogger Jo-Lynne Shane says she almost didn't write.

When the Pottstown-area woman and her three children got sick from raw milk early last year, she knew she owed it to her readers to write about it.

As a blogger about family, fashion, and food, Shane had written of her love for the raw milk from her local organic market.

Her family thought it tasted better than regular, pasteurized milk, and she believed it was more nutritious. But she and her husband always worried about whether raw milk could sicken their family.

"We always came back to the reasoning, if people were getting sick from it, we would hear more about it," she wrote.

Shane and her children were among 70 Pennsylvanians and 11 others in nearby states who got sick in January 2012 in the state's biggest dairy-related food disease outbreak in 20 years.

The illnesses were traced to raw milk from the Family Cow dairy in Chambersburg, found to be laced with campylobacter bacteria, which causes severe diarrhea.

Most of those who got sick, including the Shanes, recovered within a week or so, but 10 people needed hospitalization.

A few weeks after the outbreak, a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found raw milk is 150 times more likely to cause illness than the pasteurized variety.

Another CDC report released in February found dairy foods were an increasing source of food-borne illness in the United States, driven by the rise in the popularity of raw milk.

The CDC says milk that hasn't been pasteurized - a process that typically heats it to 161 degrees Fahrenheit for more than 15 seconds - is a ready reservoir not just for campylobacter, but also for more deadly pathogens such as E. coli.

Raw-milk advocates contend pasteurization eliminates harmful and helpful bacteria, along with beneficial enzymes and proteins.

Pennsylvania is one of 12 states that allow the retail sale of raw milk for human drinking; 20 states, including New Jersey, ban its sale. The rest allow some sales.

There are 153 Pennsylvania dairies licensed to sell raw milk, according to the state. It is sold primarily at specialty food stores, food co-ops, farm stores, and through buying clubs.

Whole Foods Market was one of the few large chains to carry raw milk in Pennsylvania and three other states where its retail sale is legal, but the company stopped the practice three years ago.

"We looked hard for a way to make it possible to reintroduce unpasteurized milk," company spokeswoman Robin Rehfield Kelly wrote. "But, in the end, we found that it is just too expensive to get the required liability insurance."

In the early days of last year's outbreak, dairy farmer Edwin Shank and his wife, Dawn, didn't believe their milk was to blame for the rash of diahrrea-related illnesses among their customers.

But even before the link to their dairy was confirmed, the Shanks voluntarily stopped selling raw milk.

A devout Mennonite and fifth-generation dairy farmer, Ed Shank wrote long, personal e-mails to customers.

When state officials confirmed that his milk had caused the illnesses, he took full responsibility in an e-mail titled It Was Us.

He rejected the advice of those who told him to keep silent until more was known. "Dawn and I have prayed, fasted, and agonized long and hard over how to say all of this.

"If our family's sustainable, local, know-your-farmer, shake-his-hand food production and distribution model cannot stand up to honesty and truth, then I guess Dawn and I are in the wrong business."

Shank said he believed food-safety procedures at his farm exceeded those required by the state. The outbreak led him to revamp his safety plan and build a lab to test his milk.

"We asked ourselves, 'How can we go forward and start selling milk again if this is the best we can do?' "

The dairy now tests a sample from every bottling, and the milk is not shipped to stores until the results are known. Shank says that usually takes an extra 24 hours, giving added security to a product that he says can last two weeks.

But it is no guarantee, says lawyer Sarah Klein of the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest, which lists raw milk as a food people should not consume. "We do not believe there is any way for raw milk to be consumed safely," she said. "No matter how scrupulously the cows are cared for or how clean the conditions are, there is still the potential for contamination."

Because of the many ways raw milk is sold, Klein says it is unclear how many people routinely drink it. Estimates range from 3 million to 13 million people.

What is clear, she says, is that its rising popularity has come with a surge in illnesses from dairy products.

The CDC study published soon after the Family Cow outbreak found dairy-related outbreaks are twice as common in states such as Pennsylvania, where the sale of raw milk is legal, compared to states where sales are not permitted.

Since 2006, there have been 10 reported outbreaks of illness linked to unpasteurized dairy products in the state, involving 233 people, says epidemiologist Allison Longenberger of the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

If raw milk becomes legal across the country, which is a goal of raw-milk activists, outbreaks would probably be far more common, CDC epidemiologist Hannah Gould says.

Outbreaks disproportionately affect children because they drink more milk than adults, Gould said. Their developing immune systems are more vulnerable to bad bacteria in contaminated milk.

"People drink raw milk because they think it is healthy, but there is no good evidence to back up any of the health claims," Gould said.

Dairy farmer Mark McAfee disagrees. He owns Organic Pastures in Fresno, Calif., the largest raw milk producer in the country. He is also an evangelist for its health properties.

He said raw milk can strengthen the immune system, with research from Europe showing that it can improve allergies, asthma, eczema, and children's ear infections.

Though some studies have shown that, others have not. In fact, few answers exist in the scientific literature to prove or disprove raw milk's claims.

It amounts to magical thinking, said Klein, the consumer lawyer. "It is on par with selling snake oil to suggest that drinking raw milk is going to cure your child of autism or cure your eczema."

Californian Mary McGonigle-Martin says her young son, Chris, became the victim of that magical thinking in August 2006, when she began buying raw milk from Organic Pastures.

Within 21/2 weeks of drinking the milk, Chris was in the hospital close to death from E. coli.

For the next two months, he suffered one life-threatening complication after another, including kidney failure, pancreatitis, and other problems so severe he was on a ventilator for nine days.

Chris, now 14, has recovered, but he may need a kidney transplant one day.

The family sued Organic Pastures and settled out of court. McAfee has always contended that it was spinach, not his milk, that sickened Chris.

But McGonigle-Martin has become a vocal opponent of raw milk. "I thought I was making an informed choice for my son, but I was getting propaganda," she said. "The raw-milk movement plays down the risks, so people can't make informed choices."


Contact Salynn Boyles at sboyles@comcast.net.

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