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Oregon Department of Agriculture emphasizes safety of pasteurized milk

Recent illnesses connected to raw milk prompt the warning

December 26, 2005

Medford News

Salem, Oregon - Pasteurized milk and dairy products are safe and wholesome. Unpasteurized- also known as raw milk- can be a hazardous food as demonstrated this month by an outbreak of serious illnesses among consumers in both Oregon and Washington. State health officials, as well as industry representatives, believe the time is right to inform and educate the public as to why pasteurization is so important when it comes to cow's milk.

"The Oregon Department of Agriculture does not support the consumption of raw milk," says Ron McKay, administrator of ODA's Food Safety Division.

"There are number of disease-causing bacteria that can be present in raw milk. On the flip side, pasteurized milk and milk products are safe."

Earlier this month, more than a dozen people, including three from Oregon, became ill after consuming unpasteurized milk traced to a raw milk dairy in southwest Washington. Most of the victims were children, including a 20-month old infant. The bacteria known as E. coli O157:H7 has been identified in all these cases. E. coli O157:H7 is found in the intestines of many animals, including cattle, and can get into the milk they produce.

The pathogen is not new to the Pacific Northwest. In 1993, hundreds of people became ill and four children died after consuming undercooked ground beef purchased from a fast food restaurant chain, primarily in the Seattle area. Of the 1,894 cases of E. coli in Oregon since 1990, there have been 425 hospitalizations and 11 deaths. E. coli is not the only pathogen commonly found in raw milk. Listeria, salmonella, and campylobacter are among the organisms that continue to cause illness, even in the past few years.

"Also in 1993, Oregon had two separate outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 associated with consumption of raw milk and 14 individuals became ill from those two outbreaks," says McKay.

As a result, ODA began requiring a statement on the product label warning consumers that raw milk may contain harmful food pathogens. By 1999, the Oregon dairy industry itself prevailed upon the state legislature to enact a law that bans the retail sale of raw cow's milk. The only exceptions are those small operations of three or fewer cows, in which there can be no advertising that the product is for sale and that all sales be confined to the farm premises. ODA inspectors routinely check retail stores at least twice a year. If raw cow's milk is being offered at those stores, it will be quickly removed from sale.

"The farm families that make up Oregon's dairy industry are concerned that some people, due to the lack of awareness concerning the dangers of consuming unpasteurized milk, are opting for raw milk," says Jim Krahn of the Oregon Dairy Farmers' Association. "This is especially troubling for children, who cannot make the choice themselves."

Raw milk advocates have been stepping up a campaign that promotes perceived benefits of an unpasteurized product. But the principles of the 18th century French microbiologist Louis Pasteur are just as true today as ever. Heat destroys harmful bacteria in liquids such as milk.

"Pasteurization was developed as a way to eliminate microogansims of public health concern," says Mark Daeschel, food microbiologist at Oregon State University. "People know you have to cook raw chicken to make it safe. Nobody would consider eating raw chicken. Pasteurization is just a more mild form of heating. Some claim that, without pasteurization, milk is more flavorful. It's a risk-benefit ratio. Most people are willing to forego a little sensory improvement in order to avoid jeopardizing their health and safety."

According to John Sheehan, director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Division of Dairy and Egg Safety, there is no significant difference in the nutritional value of pasteurized and unpasteurized milk.

Sheehan also points out that vitamin D, which enhances the body's absorption of calcium, is added to processed milk while it is not found in significant levels in raw milk.

Oregon is not alone in its concern over raw milk. Unpasteurized milk sold commercially for human consumption is illegal in all or part of 42 states.

In addition to ODA, the Oregon Department of Human Services, and the FDA, several public health organizations have adopted pro-pasteurization including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the U.S. Animal Health Association.

While both state and industry officials decry the consumption of raw milk, they also are quick to point out the positive reputation that Oregon's pasteurized product has earned.

"Oregon dairy products have been consistently judged among the highest in quality," says Salem-area dairy operator Bernie Faber, chair of the State Board of Agriculture. "That's because the producers feel obligated to produce a quality product, our processors have demanded a quality product, and, in most cases, they pay us a bit of a bonus to do that. My personal concern is that we have a safe product that will allow our children to be healthy, productive citizens without fear of any illnesses that are associated with dairy products."

Since milk is arguably the single most regulated, sampled, and tested food in the United States, the public should be able to reach for that carton with confidence.

"When there is an illness associated with raw milk consumption, it damages the credibility of our entire industry," says Faber. "If people will consume only pasteurized milk, we can assure that our product will maintain its safety and wholesomeness."

If any good can come out of this month's outbreak of raw milk-related illnesses, it is the hope that the general public will begin understanding the value of consuming only pasteurized cow's milk. Their own health and that of their family depends on it.

For more information, contact Ron McKay at (503) 986-4720 or Bruce Pokarney at (503) 986-4559.

More on this outbreak: Dee Creek Farm E. coli Outbreak

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