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Researchers warn of dangers connected to 'raw' milk and cheese

Unpasteurized products cause 840 times more illnesses and 45 times more hospitalizations

Photo credit: Nicolás Boullosa - Flickr
Throughout history, scientists, inventors, and other innovators have come up with new technologies and processes to make our lives easier and safer. Take food for example: processes like pasteurization – which involves heating up foods and liquids to kill potentially harmful bacteria – have prevented countless deaths.

Still, there are small pockets of consumers who resist such innovations. One group that has recently gained traction prefers unpasteurized milk and cheese. Proponents say that eating these products “raw” is more natural and organic, but a recent study shows that it certainly isn’t healthier.

A group of researchers have found that unpasteurized milk and cheeses are the cause of nearly every foodborne illness caused by contaminated dairy products. They say that consumers who stand by them risk increasing disease outbreaks.

“In contrast to some perceptions, natural food products are not necessarily safer than conventional ones, as evidenced by higher rates of foodborne illnesses associated with unpasteurized dairy products,” they said.

840 times more illnesses

The results of the study showed that unpasteurized dairy products caused 840 times more illnesses and 45 times more hospitalizations than pasteurized products. Annually, there are around 760 reported cases of foodborne illness connected to unpasteurized dairy products that result in an average of 22 hospitalizations. However, the researchers say that news of these cases rarely reach the public if they aren’t connected to an outbreak of disease.

“Outbreaks get all the press. But really the non-outbreak associated cases probably really dwarf the number of outbreak-associated cases,” said Kirk Smith of the Minnesota Department of Health.

When outbreaks do occur, though, the results can be deadly. Unpasteurized dairy products have been linked to a large range of diseases and bacteria, including E. coli, salmonella, listeria, and Campylobacter. All of these bacteria can cause symptoms like vomiting or diarrhea, but they can lead to more serious conditions and even death in serious cases.

States vary on their stances

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has barred the sale of unpasteurized milk meant for human consumption, but individual states have widely varying policies – which is important since milk regulations within a state are set by individual jurisdiction.

Nineteen states currently prohibit the sale of raw milk, while the remaining 31 allow some sort of access to it. Smith says that a movement in favor of unpasteurized products may originate from a lack of understanding. “I think people just kind of forget how things used to be before we had these public health advances,” he said.

The full study is scheduled to publish in Emerging Infectious Diseases in June.

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