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From the desk of the Chief Scientist

FSANZ Chief Scientist, Dr Paul Brent presents his views on issues facing FSANZ in a regular series of articles.

Raw milk risks too great 

(July 2013)

Milk has been produced and consumed for eons, and is a nutritious and tasty staple food that most of us drink from infancy and beyond.

When farmers milk their cows, they and their families know their herds and the standards of hygiene they maintain on their farms, so they often drink raw milk from their cows and have done so for years. Lately, there has been debate about the safety of allowing raw milk to be sold to the wider community.

Raw milk is milk that hasn’t been pasteurised. In Australia, milk intended for human consumption must be pasteurised or equivalently processed to eliminate pathogenic bacteria that may be present. Pasteurisation is a process that heats milk to a specific temperature for a set period of time, killing bacteria responsible for diseases such as tuberculosis, listeriosis and salmonellosis. It has been saving lives for more than 120 years.

FSANZ has completed an extensive risk assessment of raw cow’s milk and concluded that the risk to the public is too high to change those current processing requirements. The evidence shows that even extremely good hygiene procedures won’t ensure dangerous pathogens aren’t present in raw milk

As soon as raw milk is taken off farm, the risk of food-borne illness occurring rises exponentially. Off farm, raw milk can be consumed by a much wider audience, including vulnerable individuals and children with limited or no information about the inherent dangers of the product. The risks from raw milk increase the further it is transported and distributed, and the longer the time between production and consumption.

As our risk assessment details, there have been many well-documented cases of food-borne illness and deaths resulting from consumption of raw milk. In countries that allow raw milk sales, health authorities warn consumers about the increased risks of drinking raw milk. Complications from bacteria that can contaminate raw milk can be extremely severe, such as haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS) which can result in renal failure and death in otherwise healthy people.

The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says unpasteurized milk is 150 times more likely to cause foodborne illness and results in 13 times more hospitalizations than illnesses involving pasteurized dairy products. The CDC also warns that serious illness can still occur from the same brand and source of raw milk even if people have been drinking it for a long time without becoming ill.

So, pasteurising milk considerably reduces risk. It is cost effective, well-proven and does not significantly alter the appearance, flavour or nutritional benefits of the final product.

There are claims that drinking raw milk can cure or prevent disease, but this is not supported by evidence.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand takes its role to protect public health and safety seriously. In examining whether raw milk should be allowed, we must consider the weight of scientific evidence and the potential health risk to the entire community, including our most vulnerable people. On the issue of raw milk, the evidence to date shows the risk to the wider community is too great to contemplate changing the Food Standards Code. 

I encourage anyone with an interest in the topic to read our risk assessment and documentation on raw milk.


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