Raw milk and E. coli

Some more reader feedback regarding raw milk and E. coli. From Adrian:

Interesting reading on the whole raw milk debate. The feedback you posted (Raw Milk Risks) is particularly noteworthy. E. coli is a bacterium which inhabits the intestines of mammals. The fact that there's E. coli in (some) raw milk is indicative of unsanitary milking practices rather than an innate problem with raw milk. To put it bluntly, there's shit in the milk.

Gross, but possibly true. But it's important to understand that "E. coli" is not one thing. Nina Planck explains the difference between various strains of E. coli in this New York Times article Leafy Green Sewage. E. coli O157:H7 is the bacterium that makes you sick and it loves an acidic environment. Planck writes "O157 thrives in a new — that is, recent in the history of animal diets — biological niche: the unnaturally acidic stomachs of beef and dairy cattle fed on grain, the typical ration on most industrial farms. It’s the infected manure from these grain-fed cattle that contaminates the groundwater and spreads the bacteria to produce, like spinach, growing on neighboring farms."

So this could explain the current E. coli spinach outbreak. It also could explain how the four California children who drank raw milk products have been infected with E. coli. But reader Susan Q had brucellosis, possibly from raw butter or raw cheese. Even if sanitary milking practices are followed, there are still risks.

Adrian also says:

Furthermore, it's really only the soft raw-milk cheeses that you need to watch out for, hence the FDA's requirement that raw-milk cheese must be aged for a minimum of 60 days. Incidentally, there's some research in Europe which suggests that the majority of cheese-related food poisoning incidents are linked to unsanitary practices in large-scale, pastuerised milk cheese production. This is an argument that has been used in the UK in recent years by artisanal cheese producers under pressure from the government to stop using raw milk.

As cheese ages, it loses moisture. Hard, aged cheese have a lower pH and are not as favorable for bacteria growth. That's why aged raw milk cheeses are permitted in the United States. It seems like raw milk — whatever its form — has risks. That's why it's important you know where it's coming from and the conditions under which it's produced if you choose to ingest it. The same could be said for spinach, and meat, and eggs, and nearly everything else you eat.

7 thoughts on “Raw milk and E. coli

  1. From your quote from the nyt aritcle: “It’s the infected manure from these grain-fed cattle…”
    So we’re still talking about shit (manure) in the milk. The type of E. Coli contained in the manure (and the milk) seems rather tangential to the fact that there are obviously unsanitary practices being employed in the milk production.
    I’d also like to re-emphasize Adrian’s second point, in Europe more people get sick from non-raw milk products that are handled unsanitarily than they do from raw milk products. So the culprit isn’t raw milk, it’s poorly handled milk. Our government shouldn’t ban raw milk products, it should ban (and enforce it) unsanitary practices in milk production.

  2. Some where along the line Listeria monocytogenes must be a problem, as at-risk groups are warned not to eat raw milk products. Does any one know if that is caused by insanitary conditions?

  3. Clearly there are unsanitary practices being employed not just in milk production. The point about the type of E. coli is that the one that makes us sick (E. coli O157:H7) may be a result of feeding cattle grain, and having that manure come in contact with our food source. Yes, our food needs to not come in contact with manure, and more sanitary practices need to be encouraged/enforced. But also it would help if that illness-inducing E. coli weren’t growing in a cow’s digestive system.
    Poorly-handled milk is always a risk, but that risk is reduced by pasteurization. Remove that — as is the case with raw milk — and you’ve increased your risk of food-borne illness. The same could be said of ground beef. If you don’t cook it until it’s well-done, you’ve increased your risk of getting sick, especially if you haven’t ground the beef yourself. Of course, that doesn’t mean I eat my burgers that way. Life always involves risk. I’m not against raw milk, and I wish more were done to ban unsanitary practices in all food production. I just want people to be informed.
    Regarding Listeria, I found a Listeria blog that’s got some information about the disease. On this microbe wiki I found out that listeria’s “primary habitats are considered to be soil and decaying vegetable matter.” Listeria can survive refrigeration and is killed by high heat. So I’m not sure it’s caused by unsanitary conditions, per se, the way E. coli O157:H7 is. It is dangerous, especially for pregnant women, though very rare. Does anyone else know more about this?
    Also of interest: List of foodborne illness outbreaks.

  4. Brucellosis is carried in the milk, though, unlike e.coli. Your reader who unfortunately got infected is right – in this case it’s not the handling of the milk that is the culprit, but the milk itself. When animals are infected with the bacteria, their milk is contaminated. I should think that hard cheeses also carry a risk. It’s particularly concerning that cattle aren’t vaccined for brucellosis anymore. There isn’t a vaccine for humans, CDC says.

  5. Brucellosis Susie here… brucella bacteria is killed by pasteurization, like e. coli 0157. I’m not sure it could live in a hard, aged cheese for very long though and would not be there unless it started life as raw milk.
    There are a great deal more cases of brucella and e.coli in Europe from raw dairy. Brucella from raw goats milk or cheese can be lethal and there are a good many more cases there.
    The risk is still small in this country but with no monitoring in place (the bacteria can live in soil and be transferred from animal to animal) it could become a problem.
    Planck’s point about grain fed cattle being a culprit doesn’t take into account that the cattle from Organic Pastures raw milk dairy in California are certified organic and primarily pasture raised and routinely rotated on pasture. They are fed “natural grains” the site says, which I believe means if they are fed grain it would be certified organic feed such as oats or corn. No doubt it would be a good deal less than their conventional counterparts.
    Organic Pastures seemed to have the ideal conditions in place for raw milk production; their lab results for milk are published on their website even. E. coli 0157 can happen even in the most ideal conditions. She’s right, it could all be drastically reduced by cutting grain from cattle diets and transforming the industry (in our wildest dreams, sigh ). But it will still occur.
    The thing is, I don’t understand why mothers would expose their children to the risks of salmonella, e. coli 0157, and listeria and potentially, brucellosis, by giving them raw milk. I know mothers only want the best for their children but those risks outweigh the health benefits, imo. I wonder if 2 California children ending up in intensive care will have an impact?
    In the meantime, the Weston A. Price Foundation (www.realmilk.org), raw milk advocates, based on the teachings of a dentist in the 1930s (ahem), still say that raw milk is safe for babies. They do not mention the recent recall of raw milk products due to e. coli 0157 anywhere on their site.

  6. I believe it’s up to individual states, once they are brucellosis free, whether or not they require vaccination. Some require cattle coming into the state be vaccinated (they get a tattoo) but not those bred there. Others require only a negative blood test for brucellosis and TB for enterting. CA and other states that allow retail sale of raw milk probably require it for all dairy. It makes sense. My state is allegedly brucella free and does not require the vaccine.

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