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“Consumption of nonpasteurized dairy products cannot be considered safe under any circumstances.”

– US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Less than 1% of dairy products consumed in the USA is unpasteurized. Yet consumption of unpasteurized dairy products – mainly milk and cheese – accounted for 60% of dairy-associated disease outbreaks between 1993 and 2006, according to a report released today by the CDC.

The risk of illness linked specifically to drinking raw milk was even more glaring; 80% of fluid milk-related disease outbreaks were associated with unpasteurized milk.

Disease outbreaks traced to unpasteurized dairy products also were more likely to result in hospitalization (13% of victims hospitalized) versus those associated with pasteurized dairy products (1% hospitalization rate).

Campylobacter, one of the two most common causes of bacterial foodborne disease, was responsible for more than 54% of the outbreaks involving unpasteurized milk and cheese.  Only 13% of the outbreaks associated with pasteurized dairy products involved Campylobacter.

Of the 4,413 confirmed dairy-product associated illnesses reported during the 1993-2006 period, 1,571 (~36%) were linked to unpasteurized milk and cheese consumption, even though less than 1% of milk drinkers who responded to a 2005-2006 survey reported that they usually consumed raw milk.

And legalizing the sale or distribution of raw milk is not the answer to improving its safety. States in which the sale and distribution of raw milk was permitted experienced higher rates of unpasteurized dairy product-associated disease than states where its distribution was illegal.

The risk of illness that is assumed – often unwittingly – by those who choose to drink unpasteurized milk is underscored by the recent 4-state outbreak of Campylobacter illnesses that were traced unequivocally to raw milk produced and supplied by The Family Cow dairy farm in Pennsylvania. Seventy-seven people were sickened in that outbreak at last report.

The final paragraph of the CDC report says it all:

“Our analysis shows that legal intrastate sale of nonpasteurized dairy products is associated with a higher risk for dairy-related outbreaks and implies that restricting sale of nonpasteurized dairy products reduces the risk for dairy-related outbreaks within that state. Pasteurization is the most reliable and feasible way to render dairy products safe for consumption. Although warning labels and signs or government-issued permits are prudent where the sale of nonpasteurized dairy products is legal, they have not been shown to be effective and, given the results of this analysis, do not seem to reduce the incidence of outbreaks involving nonpasteurized dairy products to the degree that pasteurization does. Whether certain types of warnings or more explicit health advisories might be more effective than others is unknown. Public health officials at all levels should continue to develop innovative methods to educate consumers and caregivers about the dangers associated with nonpasteurized dairy products. State officials should consider further restricting or prohibiting the sale or distribution of nonpasteurized dairy products within their states. Federal and state regulators should continue to enforce existing regulations to prevent distribution of nonpasteurized dairy products to consumers. Consumption of nonpasteurized dairy products cannot be considered safe under any circumstances.”