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Raw Milk: It’s All Fun and Games Till There’s a Campylobacter Outbreak

posted on Tue, Feb 3 2015 1:33 pm by Mathew Swinburne

Raw milk has entered the pop consciousness. The popular television show Portlandia recently aired a sketch that humorously captures the fervor of raw milk advocates. These advocates extol the virtues of drinking raw milk, or milk that has not undergone the heat treatment known as pasteurization. Pasteurization is an important food safety mechanism because it kills harmful bacteria, viruses and parasites. While Portlandia brilliantly parodies the alleged health benefits of drinking unpasteurized milk, it’s important to remember that there are increased health risks associated with raw milk. 

Last December, Pepin County Health Department and the Wisconsin Division of Public Health completed a three month investigation that linked a Campylobacter outbreak to raw milk. This recent outbreak affected 38 individuals who consumed raw milk at a high school football team dinner. Ten of the affected individuals were hospitalized due to the severity of their illness. 

This outbreak is not an anomaly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 1,676 illnesses linked to raw milk between 1998 and 2008. These numbers are likely conservative, given that many people do not report foodborne illness. It’s also important to note that the CDC reported 82 percent of all outbreaks linked to dairy products were caused by raw dairy products between 1973 and 2009. 

And things may be getting worse. The CDC published a report this month that shows foodborne illness outbreaks associated with raw milk are on the rise. The report revealed that between 2007 and 2009 there were 30 reported outbreaks linked to raw milk. Shockingly, the number increased to 51 during the three year period of 2010 to 2012. That is a 70 percent increase in the number of outbreaks. The report also reveals that the sale of raw milk is legal in the states with the highest number of outbreaks: Pennsylvania, New York, Minnesota, South Carolina, Washington and Utah.

There are clear health risks associated with consuming raw milk and the federal government prohibits its sale and transport in interstate commerce. However, states have chosen different legal approaches to regulating this product within their borders. For example, some states have banned the sale; others allow it to be sold through retail establishments; and some only allow it to be sold to consumers directly from a farm. While states have adopted different internal approaches to regulating raw milk, these policies have effects beyond their borders. For example, a multi-state Campylobacter outbreak in 2012 was linked to raw milk sold in Pennsylvania, where it is legal; residents of Maryland, West Virginia, and New Jersey — states that prohibit the sale of raw milk — were affected because they crossed state lines to purchase the adulterated product.

Legislators, public health practitioners, and consumers need to better understand the risks of raw milk and the legal interventions used to curtail these risks. In an effort to enrich this dialog, the Network has updated our 50 State Survey of Raw Milk Statutes and Regulations and our Raw Milk Fact Sheet.

While Portlandia has brought a sense of humor to the raw milk debates, the Network will continue to provide useful and up-to-date legal resources to help raise awareness of public health concerns and potential solutions.

This blog post was developed by Mathew Swinburne, Senior Staff Attorney at the Network for Public Health Law–Eastern Region at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this post does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.

Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, RWJF

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