Legal Unpasteurized Milk Sales Result in More Foodborne Illness

A study in the January issue of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention’s Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal found that the number of U.S. foodborne illnesses caused by unpasteurized milk increased from 30 between 2007 and 2009 to 51 between 2010 and 2012.

Eighty-one percent of those outbreaks were caused by unpasteurized milk purchased in states where the sale of such milk is legal.

That raises concerns among Virginia farmers about legislation before this year’s Virginia General Assembly. HB 1290, also known as the Virginia Food Freedom Act, would exempt food products, including unpasteurized milk, made in private homes from government regulations as long as they are sold directly to the consumer and labeled with a disclosure statement. Two other bills, HB 1461 and HJ 519, also would allow for sales of unpasteurized milk.

“Farmers have a responsibility to provide safe food products to consumers, and Virginia’s dairy farmers take that very seriously,” said Lindsay Reames, assistant director of governmental relations for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. “There are known health risks associated with unpasteurized milk, and we want to ensure the food system remains safe for everyone, particularly children, who are most at risk.”

Pasteurization is the process of heating a liquid briefly to destroy disease-causing germs. Those germs, the CDC notes on its website, usually do not change the way milk looks, tastes or smells; pasteurization is a means to ensure that they are not present.

In 1987 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the interstate sale or distribution of unpasteurized milk. Laws regulating intrastate sales vary from complete bans to allowances for sales from farms or retail outlets. Some states allow cow-share or herd-share agreements, in which buyers pay farmers a fee for the care of animals in exchange for a percentage of milk produced.

Consumption of unpasteurized milk has been associated with serious illnesses caused by several pathogens, including E.coli and salmonella. Despite those risks, demand for unpasteurized milk has increased, and some states have considered relaxing restrictions on its sale.

State and local health departments voluntarily report foodborne illness outbreaks to the CDC. Between 2007 and 2012, 81 outbreaks due to consumption of unpasteurized milk were reported from 26 states.

The outbreaks resulted in 979 people becoming ill and 73 being hospitalized. Most occurred in states where the sale of unpasteurized milk was legal at the time. Information on how the milk was obtained was available for more than two-thirds of the outbreaks. Seventy-one percent of those were related to milk obtained from dairy farms; 13 percent were related to milk from licensed or commercial sellers; and 12 percent were related to milk from cow- or herd-share agreements.

The study found that the number of outbreaks caused by Campylobacter spp. bacteria nearly doubled in the six-year study period. “This increase,” the authors note, “was concurrent with a decline in the number of states in which the sale of unpasteurized milk was illegal, from 28 in 2004 to 20 in 2011 and with an increase in the number of states allowing cow-share programs.”

The study findings also note that the legal unpasteurized milk sales in one state can lead to illness outbreaks in nearby states if consumers travel to buy that milk.

Proponents of the Virginia bills that would allow sales of unpasteurized milk have asserted that current state law prevents farmers from accessing a willing local market.

“The local foods movement is incredibly robust and is in no way impaired by a ban on selling unpasteurized milk,” Reames said. “In fact, that movement would be imperiled by a change in the current law. If someone gets sick from consuming unpasteurized milk, we risk consumers being scared to buy any milk, local or otherwise, even though the vast majority of it is pasteurized and safe.”

The EID Journal article is available online at www.nc.cdc.gov/eid/article/21/1/14-0447_article.

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