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Docs Warn Against Raw Milk for Kids, Pregnant Women

Policy statement from pediatricians' group bolstered by Minnesota study on foodborne illness
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One raw-milk advocate said the danger of related illness is overstated.

"We've been tracking these numbers for quite some time. There are an average of 50 reported illnesses each year from raw milk, with 10 million drinkers of raw milk, so the percentage of illnesses is extremely low," said Sally Fallon Morell, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit nutrition education group that supports the sale of raw milk.

"We think it's a mountain out of a molehill," she said.

Those numbers clash with data gathered by the CDC, however. In the period from 1998 to 2011, the reported outbreaks resulted in nearly 2,400 illnesses, 284 hospitalizations and two deaths. That's an average of roughly 200 people sickened each year by raw dairy products.

And those were just cases linked to the outbreaks. Health officials declare an outbreak when at least two people get sick from the same food. Outbreaks don't count so-called sporadic cases, when individuals experience food poisoning but it's not linked to any other cases.

Last week, researchers in Minnesota estimated the number of sporadic cases of food poisoning in their state linked to raw dairy products and found they probably dwarf those tied to outbreaks.

In a study published Dec. 11 in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, researchers found that, over a decade, 21 people got food poisoning in five outbreaks linked to raw dairy products.

But 530 additional individual cases were reported to the state, said study author Trisha Robinson, an epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of Health. Those were cases of lab-confirmed food poisoning caused by Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, E. coli or Salmonella bacteria in which people had also reported consuming raw milk.

"There are a lot more people who are consuming raw milk who aren't part of an outbreak and they're getting sick too," Robinson said. "Outbreaks are really just the tip of the iceberg."

Given that many cases of foodborne illness are never caught or reported, Robinson estimated about 17 percent of people who drank raw milk over the 10 years of the study got sick from it.

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