In a new position statement, US paediatricians say raw milk and cheeses are
simply too risky for infants, children and pregnant women.
The statement by the American Academy of Paediatrics, published online in
the journal Paediatrics, urges parents not to let their kids drink
unpasteurised milk or eat cheese made from it.
The doctors also called for a ban on the sale of all raw-milk products in
the United States.
According to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, 148
outbreaks due to consumption of raw milk or raw-milk products were reported to
the agency between 1998 and 2011.
Dangers of raw milk
Raw milk is milk that hasn't been pasteurised, or briefly heated to at least
72 degrees Celsius to kill harmful germs. Before milk began being widely
pasteurised in the United States in the 1920s, it routinely made people sick.
Raw milk can harbour bacteria that cause tuberculosis and diphtheria, as
well as the germs that cause nasty bouts of stomach trouble such as Listeria
and E. coli, according to the US Food and Drug Administration.
Children are more susceptible to these illnesses than adults, and they tend
to get the worst of the complications, such as sudden and sometimes
life-threatening kidney failure. Illnesses tied to raw milk also can cause
miscarriages in pregnant women.
"Pasteurisation is one of the major public-health advances of the
century. It's a shame not to take advantage of that," said Dr Mary Glode,
a professor of paediatric infectious disease at Children's Hospital Colorado,
Yet as more people embrace locally produced foods, raw-milk products have
experienced a surge in popularity. Fans say it tastes better and that it might
protect kids from developing allergies and asthma, although there's little
research to back up those claims.
It also costs a pretty penny. With consumers willing to fork over R72.10 to R144.19
a gallon, dairies are pushing state legislatures to ease restrictions on the
sale of raw milk as a way to save cash-strapped family farms.
One raw-milk advocate said the danger of related illness is overstated.
"We've been tracking these numbers for quite some time. There are an
average of 50 reported illnesses each year from raw milk, with 10 million
drinkers of raw milk, so the percentage of illnesses is extremely low,"
said Sally Fallon Morell, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a non-profit
nutrition education group that supports the sale of raw milk.
"We think it's a mountain out of a molehill," she said.
Those numbers clash with data gathered by the CDC, however. In the period
from 1998 to 2011, the reported outbreaks resulted in nearly 2 400 illnesses,
284 hospitalisations and two deaths. That's an average of roughly 200 people
sickened each year by raw dairy products.
And those were just cases linked to the outbreaks. Health officials declare
an outbreak when at least two people get sick from the same food. Outbreaks
don't count so-called sporadic cases, when individuals experience food
poisoning but it's not linked to any other cases.
Last week, researchers in Minnesota estimated the number of sporadic cases
of food poisoning in their state linked to raw dairy products and found they
probably dwarf those tied to outbreaks.
In a study published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases,
researchers found that, over a decade, 21 people got food poisoning in five
outbreaks linked to raw dairy products.
But 530 additional individual cases were reported to the state, said study
author Trisha Robinson, an epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of
Health. Those were cases of lab-confirmed food poisoning caused by Campylobacter,
Cryptosporidium, E. coli or Salmonella bacteria in which
people had also reported consuming raw milk.
"There are a lot more people who are consuming raw milk who aren't part
of an outbreak and they're getting sick too," Robinson said.
"Outbreaks are really just the tip of the iceberg."
E. coli infection
Given that many cases of foodborne illness are never caught or reported, Robinson
estimated that about 17% of people who drank raw milk over the 10 years of the study
got sick from it.
The study found that 63% of those cases were in children younger than 10
years. An 11-month-old infant died from complications of an E. coli
infection, while another child drinking raw milk was sickened by E. coli
and then by salmonella a year later.
"Over three-quarters of children 5 years of age or younger were being
served raw milk from their own farm or a relative's farm," Robinson said.
"Even at your own farm where you know the cows where people know the
farm and maybe are taking really good care of those animals children can still
get sick," she said.
Robinson said people should think long and hard before giving raw dairy
products to their kids and Glode agreed.
"There's no evidence to support that raw milk is healthier, and there's
a lot of evidence to support that it's easy for it to become contaminated, with
no one intending to do it," she said. "We need to protect young
children as much as possible."
To learn more about the risks of raw milk, visit the US
Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.