By Nada Elbuluk, MD
The nation's top pediatrician's group issued a statement today against the consumption of raw milk and milk products from cows, goats and sheep, warning that these unpasteurized products are a well-known source of dangerous food borne illness.
The new American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) policy statement, which specifically advises pregnant women, infants and children to consume only pasteurized milk and milk products, also supports a ban on the sale of raw milk in the United States. It appears in the current issue of the journal Pediatrics.
Today, only about 1 to 3 percent of all dairy products consumed in the United States are unpasteurized, according to the AAP. Still, Dr. Jatinder Bhatia, a co-author on the policy statement and a professor and chief of the neonatology division at the Medical College of Georgia, said that there is no legitimate reason for consumers to choose raw milk.
"Why consume raw milk when the pasteurized product is safer and has no nutritional properties that have been altered or diminished?" Bhatia said. She added that the timing of the policy statement is due to a recent "movement in the Midwest… allowing sale of raw milk and the continued illnesses associated with non-pasteurized milk and milk products."
Backing the AAP's position is a wealth of data underscoring the risks of raw milk and its products. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 1998 through 2011 there were 148 outbreaks in the United States associated with raw dairy products. In total, this added up to 2,384 illnesses, 284 hospitalizations and two deaths.
More recently, a study last week from the Minnesota Department of Health suggested that more than 1 in 6 people who regularly consume raw milk or raw milk products could make themselves sick by doing so.
And these sicknesses can be deadly. The AAP notes in its statement that raw milk products can contain such bacteria as listeria, campylobacter, salmonella, brucella, and E.coli, all of which can lead to life-threatening illnesses including meningitis and blood-borne infections. In pregnant women, the microorganisms in raw milk can even lead to preterm delivery, stillbirths and miscarriages.
Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventative medicine and infectious disease at Vanderbilt University who was not involved with the statement, applauded the move. He noted that prior to widespread pasteurization of milk, raw dairy was to blame for a significant proportion of food borne illnesses among Americans, leading to hundreds of infectious outbreaks.
"From a public health standpoint, this continues to be a serious problem. Each year we continue to have outbreaks in the U.S. associated with unpasteurized milk or milk product consumption. These outbreaks are completely preventable."
Schaffner said, these infections not only affect the consumer but also the individuals with whom they come into contact, since they can be passed from person to person and lead to larger outbreaks.
Pediatric nutritionist and director of the nutrition clinic at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine Keith-Thomas Ayoob agreed the new policy statement is an important step.
"There's a reason for pasteurization - because it keeps milk safe," Ayoob said. "I don't take chances. [It's] tenuous at best and not worth the risk.
"We should all be grateful for the pasteurization of milk. Period."
The U.S. government has already taken some action against raw milk in the past. In 1987, the FDA banned interstate commerce of raw milk products. However, since there are no federal agencies that regulate and enforce milk sanitation within each state, the sales of these products are still legal in at least 30 states.
The demand for raw milk and raw milk products is predominantly among certain groups who believe there are health benefits from consuming the natural ingredients in unprocessed milk - ingredients they feel become inactivated through the pasteurization process. A few even claim that pasteurized milk is linked to autism, allergic reactions, and asthma. There is no scientific evidence to support any of these claims.
Given the compelling evidence that consumption of raw milk and milk products can put individuals and those around them at risk for serious, potentially deadly bacterial infections, it is clear that the risks of consuming raw dairy products far outweigh the benefits. Pasteurized milk has equal health benefits compared to raw milk - all without the added health concern of bacterial infections.
While the AAP's policy statement emphasizes the health risks of raw dairy consumption by pregnant women and children, it is important to remember that raw milk has public health implications for everyone. Consumers should use this information to make knowledgeable decisions about their own dairy product consumption.