published Saturday, November 9th, 2013

Raw milk consumption spurs illnesses in East Tennessee

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The Tennessee Department of Health announced this week that at least eight cases of illness among East Tennessee children likely are related to drinking "raw," or unpasteurized, milk.

An investigation has identified a specific type of E. coli bacteria, "O157," as the cause of at least three of the illnesses. Health experts have been calling attention to the bug as the cases pop up.

"Some people who consume raw milk because they believe it is healthier than pasteurized milk are putting themselves and others they share it with at risk for a range of serious illnesses," Health Department Commissioner Dr. John Dreyzehner said. "Raw milk is 150 times more likely to cause a food-borne illness than pasteurized milk and can be life-threatening to some, particularly the young. Those who consume raw milk are eroding years of progress in reducing dangerous, preventable illnesses."

In addition to the O157 E. coli threat, unpasteurized milk from cows and goats includes a risk for salmonella and campylobacter. Complications from ingesting these pathogens include diarrheal disease and other syndromes that could lead to paralysis and kidney failure.

"While some adults may be able to tolerate bacteria found in unpasteurized milk or food products made with raw milk, children, older adults, pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems can be in great danger," Deputy State Epidemiologist Dr. John Dunn said.

Early symptoms of raw milk-related sicknesses can include upset stomach, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea and flulike symptoms. Those who experience any of these symptoms after drinking raw milk are being told to see their health care provider and notify their local health department.

The Tennessee Department of Agriculture licenses and inspects about 400 commercial dairies whose milk is safely pasteurized and processed for human consumption, according to a news release.

"Despite the cleanest barns and the best efforts of farmers, raw milk can contain harmful bacteria," Tennessee Department of Agriculture Commissioner Julius Johnson said. "We all need to understand raw milk can be contaminated with deadly microorganisms. Pasteurization kills these without significantly affecting the taste or nutritional quality of milk."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has prohibited the distribution of raw milk across state lines since 1987. Some consumers take extreme measures to obtain raw milk, even buying and using milk labeled as pet food. Although it is legal to drink the raw milk of an owned animal, it doesn't change the health risk, experts insist.

The Tennessee Department of Health suggests consumers read the labels of all milk and cheese products to make sure they are buying only pasteurized goods.

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