“Raw” milk is milk that hasn’t been pasteurized. Health officials from almost every agency and organization warn it often contains dangerous bacteria that can sicken or even kill people: E.coli, salmonella, listeria and campylobacter, to name a few.
But proponents of drinking it say heating the milk during the pasteurization process kills helpful pathogens, including probiotics and enzymes.
That’s put lawmakers in the position of having to strike a balance between personal freedom and public safety.
East Tennessee Children’s Hospital said Tuesday it’s treated “close to 10” children, all younger than 4, for a “serious outbreak” of E. coli-caused illness over the past 10 days. The Knox County Health Department has confirmed two likely sources of the outbreak are unpasteurized milk and farm animals.
Most of the ill children are known to have consumed raw milk from a local cow-share dairy, French Broad Farm in Knox County, the health department said in an alert issued Tuesday evening. “Due to possible contamination with E. coli and out of an abundance of caution,” the health department said it recommends consumers dispose of all raw milk or other unpasteurized products they may have from this farm.
The owner of French Broad Farm couldn’t immediately be reached for comment and the French Broad Farm Facebook page has been taken down.
Is it illegal?
It’s not illegal to consume raw milk, but 20 states outlaw its sale for human consumption altogether. Thirteen states allow its sale in stores, 17 states allow its sale only on farms, and eight states — including Tennessee — allow it to be sold only through “cow-share” arrangements.
In Tennessee and every other state but Michigan, farms licensed to sell animal feed can also sell raw milk labeled “for pet consumption only.”
In addition, unpasteurized milk can’t be sold across state lines, since the federal government does not allow its sale.
The same laws apply to shares for goats’ and sheep’s milk, although that’s less common.
What’s a cow-share?
In a cow-share, sometimes called a “herd-share” or “dairy-share,” a group of individuals technically own a cow or cows and pay a farmer a fee for boarding and milking their cows. Members of the cow-share then pick up the raw milk from the farmer. A share is usually equal to a gallon a week.
The members of the cow-share are drinking milk from an animal they own, so they’re technically not “buying” the milk, just paying the farmer to collect it and care for the animal. The milk is not sold commercially, and since the cows are privately owned, the state does not inspect them as it would a commercial dairy.
Tennessee legalized cow-shares in 2009. That’s how French Broad Farm sold its milk, which made it easier for Knox County Health Department to track who’d consumed it during the recent E. coli outbreak investigation.
Suzanne Morgan of Echo Valley Farm in Madisonville offers cow shares and said she is “grateful that we have the freedom to do this here in this state.”
“There is not just one thing we can say is a silver bullet (to prevent contamination). It starts with the cows’ diet, it moves to their living conditions, to the sanitization procedures put in place for milking and sanitization procedures for filling jars. Everything being immaculate is probably the biggest preventative and second to have the cows on a grass-fed diet. We also implement supplements for our cows that are study-proven to help reduce pathogens in their guts,” she said.
Morgan considers this latest E. coli outbreak as “a hard stroke of luck for our area because we have the Dean Foods issue and there may be farmers entertaining doing herd sharing. Then this happens. It’s not a pretty thing to have to deal with,” she said.
More important, she said, she feels strongly that pointing a finger at a culprit is not good for anyone until there’s definitive proof.
“Raw milk is not the devil. There is risk with all foods,” Morgan said. “I’m not trying to be insensitive. My heart goes out to those children and their families who are affected and I pray that they get well. My goal is to raise awareness and offer education about raw milk and the good that it offers. Let’s call back the lynch mob and get it figured out first and then lay responsibility where it belongs.”
Are there new laws?
Earlier this year, the state Senate and House considered a pair of bills — SB 1913 and HB 1963 — that would have allowed the direct sale of raw milk butter. Another pair of bills — SB 2104 and HB 2229 — would have exempted raw milk and dairy products sold out of “home kitchens” from being licensed, inspected and regulated by the state.
Both mainstream dairy groups and health organizations lobbied against the changes, and neither House bill was approved.
Is raw milk safe?
Cow-share farmers say they make extra efforts to sanitize milk collection at every step and use a process that filters — but does not pasteurize — the milk.
Health officials say it’s not the milk itself but the process of collecting it in a farm environment where animals inevitably have bacteria in their intestines that makes it susceptible to contamination.
The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in data it collected in 2009-2014, found unpasteurized milk is 840 times more likely than pasteurized milk to cause a food-borne illness. People who get sick from unpasteurized dairy, the CDC report said, are 45 times more likely to be hospitalized than those who get ill from pasteurized dairy products.
After the report, the CDC updated its website to include more information on raw milk.
Harmful strains of E. coli can cause diarrhea, cramping, urinary tract infections, kidney failure, respiratory illness and pneumonia, and other illnesses, the CDC said. Occasionally, people die after infection. The watery, bloody diarrhea that’s the hallmark of most cases is particularly dangerous in small children, who are prone to dehydration, and shiga toxin that can be released by the bacteria can cause kidney failure, which is especially dangerous for the very young and the very old.
The Health Department recommends seeking medical attention immediately if you or your child has watery, bloody diarrhea that does not resolve quickly. Tell your medical provider if you or your child have consumed raw milk or had contact with farm animals. For general questions about E. coli, call 865-215-5555 between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. weekdays.
Most people take precautions to avoid contracting salmonella poisoning from raw chicken, but there are other foods that are surprisingly more likely to harbor the harmful bacteria.
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