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Is Raw Milk Safe (Part 2)? By Ben Pratt

Below is an article written by Ben Pratt of Natural Food Finder, this has been kindly reproduced with his permission, Thanks Ben!

After the last post on raw milk safety I have had some great discussions with friends and colleagues regarding the ‘evidence’ that is typically put forward apparently condemning the safety of drinking unpasteurised milk. Raw milk has also been in the press further in the last few weeks; in the Evening Standard as a result of Selfridges in London allowing a raw milk vending machine in their store (run by Hook & Sons), and also on the BBC One Show exploring the wonderful Guernsey milk produced by Dave Paull in Somerset.

The Foods Standards Agency have always been openly opposed to raw milk claiming that there is a mountain of evidence that it poses a more significant risk to our health compared to other foods and as such should be banned from consumption. However, as government have not been able to pass any laws to bring a ban into affect (despite 2 previous attempts) the FSA continues to encourage strict regulation and a to maintain a ‘beady’ little eye fixed on the raw milk farms and the bacterial counts of the milk that they produce. I went searching and came across the FSA’s full 2010 report on their website listing all the statistics and ‘evidence’ as to why raw milk should be banned. There is quite a lot of information to digest in this 20 page document. To get to the point I have created the table below which highlights the key statistics from within this report to show that the risk from raw milk is really not very significant at all.

I apologise for the small text size – please use the buttons Ctrl and + to zoom your screen to make it more easy to read.(Ctrl and 0 will restore screen)

It can clearly be seen that raw milk only accounts for 0.8% of all the total food borne illnesses in the UK over the 17 years that records have been kept regarding this. In terms of the number of people actually affected this is even fewer with only 0.39% of people affected by food borne illness contracting their bacterial strain from raw milk. There have been absolutely no deaths recorded at all as a result of illness due to drinking raw milk across the 17 years, but 149 deaths have been caused by other bacteria from other foods!! Why then is it raw milk that is under pressure to be banned and is still under tight regulation? Should we not be looking to the other foods that are causing 99.2% of all the food borne illnesses and 100% of the deaths related to food borne illnesses and measuring them against the same stiff ruler that is lined up against raw milk? Surely this is ridiculous! How is this a mountain of evidence? It is weak at very best – and it is the FSA’s own figures, their own statistics that show how poor the association between raw milk consumption and illness really is when compared to other foods. It is also important to point out that there was no mention in the report that the small number of raw milk related cases of illness actually drank the milk from licensed farms who produce their milk in line with the standards laid down by regulatory bodies. This raw milk could have come from anywhere, or any farm.

When looking at the 242 actual cases of illness related to raw milk consumption over the full 17 years we can determine that there is an average of 14 people each year who may contract a bacterial illness as a result of raw milk consumption. Of course we do not want these 14 people to become sick, but compared to the annual average of 3,634 people who become ill as a result of consuming other foods, raw milk is not looking nearly so bad after all.

Campylobacter is by far the most common source of illness related to raw milk consumption with 51% of the 242 cases, but it has the lowest rate of hospital admission at 5% as the symptoms may be unpleasant but are rarely life threatening. E Coli 0157 has the lowest percentage of actual illness attributed to raw milk (17% of 242 cases) but has the highest contribution to hospital admissions from the raw milk group as a contrast (63.8% of 36 admissions), totaling 23 people admitted over the 17 years reviewed. Now bearing in mind that the FSA also reported in 2005 that food borne campylobacter rates from all food sources peaked in 1998 at 58,000 cases in the UK dropping to 46,200 in 2002, then the 125 cases from raw milk over 17 years (averaging 7.3 cases per year) seem of little concern in comparison. This means that campylobacter related illness specifically originating from unpasteurised milk and cream accounted for 0.013% of all campylobacter infections in the UK in 1998 and only 0.015% of all campylobacter infections in 2002! Once again the question of why we are not increasing regulations on the other foods that cause 99.87% of campylobacter infections instead of unfairly regulating against raw milk has to be asked! It is clear from the first safety blog on raw milk that campylobacter is most commonly associated with chicken, salad vegetables and drinking water.

The Department of Health has observed a rise in the rate of illness from E Coli 0157 between 1982 and 2000. The year 2000 brought the highest on record up to that point with 850 reported cases of E Coli related illness. Of these cases in 2000 only 6 were identified as being from unpasteurised milk, or 0.7% of cases. The E Coli 0157 strain of bacteria causes a more serious illness that, as we have already pointed out, may result in hospital admission in more cases than with campylobacter. It is absolutely correct that we be concerned with E Coli, but once again should we not be taking stricter regulation of the other foods that are causing 99.3% of the cases of E Coli? I recently attended a raw milk debate in Ireland earlier this year where the Food Safety Authority officials made very passionate arguments about the ‘high’ risk of E Coli infection from raw milk. They used scare tactics to highlight how bad this illness is, implying raw milk was a primary cause. They even referred to a recent outbreak in Germany as though it were related to raw milk. I came away from the meeting and immediately read the news reports on this outbreak in Germany and as it happens they believed it came from cucumbers – nothing to do with milk. Here in the UK a recent E Coli outbreak affecting 250 people in 2011 was attributed to soil grown vegetables. Once again not milk! But I don’t here anyone calling for a ban on soil grown vegetables – no nothing like that. Vegetables are good for us, so just a reminder has been offered to be sure we wash of veg thoroughly.

Even more interesting is the incorrect assumption that drinking pasteurised milk will guarantee safety and prevent illness. The 2010 FSA report identifies that in the 17 years from 1992 to 2009 that 545 people were affected by bacteria related illness as a result of drinking pasteurised milk. This is more than double the rate of illness from raw milk over the same period of time! Of these outbreaks 43 people were hospitalised, slightly exceeding that of raw milk. There were no deaths related to pasteurised milk consumption. Whilst it is clear that more people drink pasteurised milk than raw, this shows that the idea that pasteurising milk somehow guarantees safety in consumption is completely false. Pasteurisation does guarantee that the milk you drink will be lower is nutrition and goodness as we discussed in our previous milk blog on nutritional benefits. Raw milk is a safe food to eat when it is is produced to carefully regulated standards from cows who graze on green pasture, hay or silage. In more than 99% of cases it will provide nutrition and good health and the risk of illness is certainly no higher than any other food that we eat in our modern food chain. In fact in most cases it is probably much cleaner and safer! The statistics speak for themselves. Now you have seen them with your own eyes and understand the minimal risks why not find your nearest raw milk supplier and see what real milk tastes like. The nutritional benefits are there to be had. Get to know your farmer and ensure he is maintaining high standards so that your milk is as nutritionally beneficial and as clean as possible. The bacterial standards at present in the UK for raw milk production are as follows:

Plate counts at 30 degrees C: (cfu per ml) < or = 20,000

Coliforms (cfu per ml) < 100

Note: cfu means ‘colony-forming units’ or active bacteria that are capable of replication


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