Whether it's from cows, goats, sheep or another mammal, milk and milk products are an important source of calcium throughout a person's life.
Most of the milk sold in the United States is pasteurized, a process during which the milk is heated to 161 degrees and kept there for 15 seconds. Pasteurization kills harmful bacteria -- including salmonella, E. coli, and listeria -- that can contaminate milk before it gets to your table. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend pasteurization for all milk consumed by people in the United States.
Pasteurization of milk is an effective means of preventing outbreaks of foodborne illness, including tuberculosis, brucellosis, salmonellosis, scarlet fever and listeriosis. It was first used in the United States more than 100 years ago and has been widely used for more than a half-century, says John Sheehan, an FDA expert on the safety of dairy products.
Increasingly, consumers are seeing "raw" milk -- and cheeses, yogurts, and other products made from it -- in specialty shops, farmers' markets and stores. That's partly because many Americans have developed a "back to nature" philosophy about the foods they eat, embracing the idea that locally produced and minimally processed foods are more nutritious.
But in the case of raw milk, FDA says that's not true. Although the heating process slightly affects a few of the vitamins, the changes are not significant. Meanwhile, there is a risk that milk could be contaminated by environmental factors such as soil or animal feces, animal diseases, or bacteria on an animal's skin.
In countries where pasteurization of milk is less common, outbreaks of foodborne illness attributed to tainted milk or milk products occur more frequently than they do in the United States. In France, for example, the rate of foodborne illness attributed to milk and milk products was reported to be roughly three times what it is in the U.S., says Sheehan, citing a 2001 study by researcher Marie-Laure De Buyser and other French scientists.
To avoid raw milk, read the label on milk or milk products before you buy them. Many companies put the word "pasteurized" right on the label, but it is not required. Or, ask the person selling the product if the milk has been pasteurized.
Not all raw milk and products made from it contain harmful bacteria. But if they do, the bacteria could be especially dangerous to pregnant women, children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems. While most healthy people recover from a food borne illness in a short time, some people may develop symptoms that are chronic, severe, or even life-threatening.
Symptoms of foodborne illness may include: vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever, headache and body aches.
If you think you might have become ill from drinking raw milk -- or eating yogurt, cheese, or a product made from it -- see your health care provider immediately.
This information is taken from a March 2011 FDA Consumer Health Information publication. For more consumer health information on various topics go to www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates, or contact the Bourbon County Extension office on first floor of the courthouse.