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The other E. coli threat? Raw milk

By Alex Berezow, Special to CNN
  • Alex Berezow says Europe's E.coli outbreak a reminder that microbes lurk in many places
  • He says the FDA cracked down on interstate transport of Amish raw milk, banned by federal law
  • He says serious sickness linked to raw milk, juice sold legally within states
  • Berezow: Consuming raw foods risks health. Raw milk and juice should not be for sale

Editor's note: Alex B. Berezow is the editor of RealClearScience. He holds a Ph.D. in microbiology.

(CNN) -- The strain of E. coli that has killed at least 25 people and sickened more than 2,600 others in Europe is a terrifying reminder that killer microbes lurk in places where we least expect them. Though it is not a reason to panic, this incident should force us to rethink some important food safety issues.

One good place to start would be to completely ban the sale of raw milk and juice.

In April, the FDA cracked down on an Amish raw milk producer for selling its product across state lines without proper labeling, both of which are in violation of federal law. This predictably led to cries of "big government" telling people what they can and cannot eat. But given the effects of the deadly microbe that has been creeping across Europe's food supply, the FDA's decision is looking very responsible.

Raw food, in particular unpasteurized milk and juice, poses a very specific public safety risk that is unrelated to dietary concerns. Consuming a diet loaded with fat and salt is unhealthy, but the government has no business regulating that. Raw milk, however, is different. Unpasteurized milk has a greater chance of being contaminated with disease-causing bacteria than pasteurized milk.

Milking a cow is a fundamentally dirty process. The Seattle Times vividly recounted the story of a dairy cow defecating and splattering a raw milk producer in the face. The farmer hardly noticed and kept milking the cow. Because cows naturally carry harmful bacteria in their intestines, it is not a surprise that E. coli from his farm was later found in sick patients who had consumed his milk.

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Unfortunately, the safety concerns over raw food do not end with unpasteurized milk. In 1996, unpasteurized apple juice produced by Odwalla poisoned several dozen people with E. coli O157:H7, a particularly nasty strain that results in bloody diarrhea. One young child died.

The sale of raw milk and juice is decided state-by-state. More than half the states allow sales within the state, while all interstate sales are illegal: The FDA banned interstate sale in 1987.

However, this does not address the fundamental problem that raw milk could cause a massive E. coli outbreak within a single state.

And E. coli is not the only bacterium with which we must be concerned. Campylobacter and salmonella, both of which can result in deadly infections, are associated with raw milk and undercooked meat.

Though the current outbreak in Europe seems to implicate contaminated vegetables, which can be washed and safely eaten raw, we should pause to consider current food safety regulations.

Proponents of raw food believe natural products are healthier. This is a myth. In actuality, those who consume raw food, in particular unpasteurized milk and juice, are taking an unnecessary risk with their own health. Irresponsibly, they sometimes take risks with the health of their own children, whose bodies are often not strong enough to combat food-borne illnesses.

Outbreaks from raw milk are relatively common. According to the FDA, 85 outbreaks of human infections occurred from 1998 to 2008. More than 1,600 people were infected during that time, and two people died. Outbreaks keep occurring to this day, with E. coli and campylobacter being the common culprits.

The FDA is in an unenviable position. Enforcing its own regulations results in complaints of government overreach, while disease outbreaks would surely result in complaints of government negligence. As is often the case, the FDA finds itself in an impossible no-win situation. It does what it has to do.

States should do the same. When it comes to unpasteurized products, the decision should come quickly and simply: Raw milk and juice are no longer for sale.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alex B. Berezow.

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