States that allow raw milk sales have more than twice as many dairy-related disease outbreaks as states with prohibitions on such unpasteurized products, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study showed.
The rate of incidents caused by raw milk, cheese and yogurt was 150 times greater than outbreaks linked to pasteurized milk, according to the Atlanta-based CDC’s study, published today in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases. The 13-year review examined outbreaks from 1993 to 2006 in all 50 U.S. states.
Unpasteurized dairy has gained popularity by consumers who say raw milk strengthens the immune system and provides other health benefits. Twenty states ban raw milk sales in some form.
“Restricting the sale of raw milk products is likely to reduce the number of outbreaks and can help keep people healthier,” Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases, said in a statement.
Dairy caused 4,413 illnesses, 239 hospitalizations and three deaths, according to the study. In 60 percent of the outbreaks, state health officials determined raw milk products were the cause.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the interstate sale of raw milk in 1987 and has investigated farmers and co-op owners who provide raw milk products. A federal court this month awarded the FDA an injunction against Daniel Allgyer, an Amish farmer in Kinzers, Pennsylvania, to bar him from interstate distribution of raw milk. He can still sell the products in Pennsylvania.
Allowing buyers to participate in a cow share -- where consumers purchase part of the animal and then receive product - - is “merely a subterfuge to create a transaction disguised as the sale of raw milk to consumers,” according to the Feb. 2 decision from a federal judge in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The milk transported across state lines “constitutes a sale” legally regulated by the FDA.
The agency spent about two years investigating Allgyer.
Most recently, 77 people in four states have been sickened as of Feb. 16 in a campylobacter outbreak from raw milk produced by Family Cow dairy in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, according to the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and the Pennsylvania Health Department. Campylobacter is a bacterial infection that causes diarrhea and vomiting.
“Raw milk didn’t make people sick, campylobacter did,” Edwin Shank, who co-owns the dairy, said in an interview. “That’s an important distinction. Whenever its raw milk, people want to vilify raw milk and say don’t drink it. They don’t say the same thing about cantaloupe or spinach or peanut butter.”
Family Cow said on its website that “we are skeptical if this apparently powerful diarrhea bug we are hearing about is actually connected to our farm or if it was something going around in other communities not in any way connected to us.”
Illnesses from raw milk are a small portion of foodborne illnesses, said Sally Fallon Morell, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a non-profit nutrition research group in Washington that works for universal access to raw milk.
“There are not enough outbreaks to see a pattern,” she said in an interview.