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Raw Milk Poses Health Risks for Users of All Ages

Monday, February 23, 2015 | 06:39am

NASHVILLE – In the quest for good health, some may believe “100 percent natural” is always best. That belief, however, doesn’t take into account some life-saving scientific advances which have made many products safer without any significant effect on their nutritional value.

“Pasteurized milk is a prime example of one food that is much safer thanks to a simple heating process that destroys harmful bacteria,” said Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner John Dreyzehner, MD, MPH. “It has been recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as one of the ten great public health achievements of the 20th century.”

John Dunn, DVM, PhD, director of foodborne disease prevention services for the Tennessee Department of Health, said drinking unpasteurized milk, sometimes known as “raw” milk, is “a spin of the roulette wheel” in how it may affect a person’s health. 

“It’s true many people grew up on farms and drank raw milk from their cows and goats with no ill effects,” Dunn said. “It’s also true others weren’t as lucky, swallowing bacteria-laden milk that did great harm. Pasteurization destroys dangerous microorganisms without substantially altering the taste or nutritive value of milk.

“In 2013, we had one outbreak of nine children in Tennessee becoming extremely ill after drinking raw milk, with five of those requiring hospitalization and three developing severe, life-threatening kidney problems,” Dunn continued. “In that outbreak, E. coli 0157 in their raw milk put those children’s lives at risk.”

Infants, young children, older people and those with weakened immune systems are at the greatest risks of serious health complications if they consume raw milk or products such as cheese, ice cream or yogurt made from raw milk. Women who are pregnant should also avoid unpasteurized milk or products containing raw milk. Of particular concern are children fed raw milk by parents who mistakenly believe they are making a healthier choice for their families.

Bacteria in raw milk can create a multitude of illnesses and damage to organs. Common symptoms of illness from drinking contaminated raw milk include vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, headaches, fever and body aches. While some may respond to medical treatment, others may suffer irreversible organ damage or death.

It is illegal to transport and sell raw milk across state lines and many states, including Tennessee, have laws which prohibit the sale of raw milk to consumers. Some skirt the law by purchasing a share of a cow for their personal consumption.

“Some sellers tout cleanliness of their dairy operation or the health of their livestock, but the simple fact is all raw milk contains bacteria that pasteurization would destroy,” Dunn said. “Your best choice for healthy, nutritious milk is the pasteurized kind you find in grocery stores and markets. Choosing raw milk instead can be one of the unhealthiest decisions you make for yourself or your family.”          

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has additional information on the risks of raw milk available online at www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/rawmilk/raw-milk-index.html.

The mission of the Tennessee Department of Health is to protect, promote and improve the health and prosperity of people in Tennessee. TDH has facilities in all 95 counties and provides direct services for more than one in five Tennesseans annually as well as indirect services for everyone in the state, including emergency response to health threats, licensure of health professionals, regulation of health care facilities and inspection of food service establishments.  Learn more about TDH services and programs at http://health.state.tn.us/.

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