Pennsylvania officials have shut down a local dairy farm after traces of Campylobacter—a pathogen linked to a bacterial mini-outbreak in the Midwest—were found in test samples taken last month. The Pennsylvania Department of Health's decision to close the plant stokes the ongoing debate over the safety of raw milk, which has been hailed by enthusiasts as a healthier alternative to pasteurized milk.
Raw milk, as its name suggests, is milk that has not undergone the pasteurization process, which uses heat to cleanse the milk of any dangerous bacteria that may have been inadvertently mixed in during production. Raw milk, like raw meat, is susceptible to contamination by Salmonella and E. coli, and is often processed in plants where it is exposed to fecal matter.
Campylobacter—one of the pathogens associated with fecal contamination—is known to cause severe diarrhea, fever, abdominal pain, and cramping. Last month, 12 cases of campylobacteriosis were reported in Indiana and Michigan, apparently stemming from a single raw-milk producer in northern Indiana.
Although the recent spate of illnesses have put a spotlight on the controversial food product, the dangers of raw milk are not a new discovery. According to the Food and Drug Administration, raw milk can be linked to at least 187 hospitalizations, 1,614 illnesses and two deaths between 1998 and 2008. The FDA now bans the sale of non-pasteurized milk, and 25 states have laws prohibiting commercial sale of the product.
The regulations have not, however, stopped raw milk fans. Dairies often sell raw milk to customers who bring their own bottles, and a number of raw milk drinkers have turned to "cow-sharing," splitting the cost of a dairy cow between families, in order to avoid consumer health regulations.
The draw? Raw milk enthusiasts claim that the pasteurization process removes enzymes and healthy bacteria, like Lactobacillus, along with the pathogens. They also point to the fact that dairies that produce raw milk generally do not use antibiotics or feed the cows with animal byproducts.
The FDA, however, says the health benefits of going raw are simply not worth the risks.
"There is no meaningful nutritional difference between pasteurized and raw milk," the FDA said in a statement released last month. "Raw milk does not contain compounds that will kill harmful bacteria.”
According to Dr. Mehmet Oz (of Oprah fame), consuming raw milk is especially dangerous for children, the elderly, and people with weak immune systems. Dr. Oz recommends milk from grass-fed cows, which tends to have a better ratio of fatty acids, proven to raise healthy cholesterol levels and lower triglyceride counts.
Related stories: New Food Safety Rules Aim to Prevent Salmonella in Eggs, E. Coli in Beef | Monsanto Uprooted: Germany Bans Cultivation of GM Corn | E. coli Provides Clues to Colon Cancer Treatment | The Vegetable-Industrial Complex