The health risks associated with drinking raw milk are sufficiently high to warrant that the product carry a warning label, according to a comprehensive study conducted by researchers at the UCLA School of Health and funded by the raw milk industry.
The five-member team, led by Dr. Gary A. Richwald, reached its conclusion after reviewing previously unreleased state health records, physicians’ records and articles in medical journals, all of which indicated a significant rise in raw milk-related contamination cases.
10 Times More Likely
In fact, the group found that those individuals who consume the unpasteurized raw milk are between 10 and 100 times more likely to become infected with Salmonella dublin, a “life-threatening illness,” than people who do not drink raw milk.
“Our major point is that for certain individuals . . . drinking raw milk may be hazardous to their health,” Richwald said. “And our conclusions are that the milk should contain . . . a warning label so that consumers could make an intelligent choice.”
Richwald and his colleagues recommended that the following statement be used on certified raw milk cartons:
“This product is unpasteurized. Although it is produced under strict industry standards, it may contain harmful bacteria or other organisms.
“Persons with weakened immune systems, such as those having cancer, infants and the elderly, should consult their physician before consumption of this product.”
The report, the product of 30 months of work, is a setback for its sponsor, the American Assn. of Medical Milk Commissions, whose principal client is Alta-Dena Dairies. In the past, the City of Industry-based company, the nation’s largest producer of certified raw milk, has vigorously opposed calls by health officials for a warning label on its products.
The UCLA study was immediately criticized by an Alta-Dena official.
“Until some evidence is uncovered that unequivocally links raw certified milk with any health hazard, it is the (dairy’s) position that this natural food product should not be discriminated against by being required to carry a (warning) label while other food sources associated with salmonella outbreaks are not,” said Rob Bryant, an Alta-Dena spokesman, who read from a prepared statement.
The Richwald study was also faulted by Alta-Dena for failing to meet its original charter, which called for assessing the contamination threat posed by several food sources, including pasteurized milk, and identifying further research needs. The dairy further criticized the UCLA group for reviewing only a portion of the available literature.
“The Stueves (Alta-Dena’s founders and owners) feel that the study’s conclusions are selective and its recommendation for labeling without merit,” Bryant stated.
Alta-Dena produces 17,000 gallons of certified raw milk daily under the Stueve’s Natural brand and estimates that more than 100,000 people, mostly Southern Californians, consume the product.
Asked to comment on the Alta-Dena criticism of the study, Richwald said he strongly disagrees with the contention that it is “without merit.”
“There is no question that the research findings are based on selected data,” he said. “But we feel strongly that our research stands on its own. And we obviously disagree as to the significance of the findings.”
Richwald and his colleagues are firm in their recommendation about a warning label because of the severity of potential salmonella contamination and the unique demographics of those consumers who purchase the product.
“Raw milk drinkers are not representative of the general population,” the report stated. “They are probably concentrated among health-conscious young adults, their children, the elderly and the chronically ill. This is of particular concern since it is the very young children, the elderly, and (the seriously ill) who appear to be the most susceptible to S. (Salmonella) dublin infection.”
The UCLA study, to be released today, is likely to provide support for legislation recently introduced in the state Assembly that also calls for a warning label on raw milk products. The bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Lloyd G. Connelly (D-Sacramento), would require that raw milk cartons be labeled to state, in part, that the product “may contain bacteria that can cause human disease.”
And the research may figure in a suit filed in Alameda County Superior Court in Hayward against Alta-Dena by Consumers Union, the American Public Health Assn. and the California Gray Panthers. The coalition seeks, among other things, a court order forcing Alta-Dena to place a warning label on its raw milk products.
Over the last two decades, laboratory tests have revealed the presence of harmful bacteria in Alta-Dena’s certified raw milk more than 200 times, according to court documents filed by an attorney for the Consumers Union-led group.
These laboratory findings have resulted in more than 20 statewide product recalls for the dairy, which has maintained that neither its herds nor manufacturing practices were the source of the bacteria. Furthermore, Alta-Dena officials claim that no one has ever become ill as a result of consuming its raw milk products.
Nevertheless, the contaminant most often associated with raw milk is Salmonella dublin, which can cause diarrhea, fever and vomiting. The infection can be fatal in several groups including infants, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, such as people with cancer or acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).
There were 68 deaths among 303 reported cases of Salmonella dublin during the four-year period studied by the researchers. The medical records are inconclusive on how many, if any, of the deaths could be linked to certified raw milk. However, between 33% and 50% of the 303 reported Salmonella dublin cases were directly attributed to certified raw milk use. More exact figures on food-borne contamination occasionally are not available because of incomplete medical records and food histories of those stricken, Richwald said.
The potential danger to the vulnerable groups was the reason the researchers called for a warning label, particularly because many people perceive certified raw milk to be a “health food.”
The “risks associated with certified raw milk may not be apparent to the public, especially those at higher risk,” the report states.
The UCLA researchers surveyed all reported cases of Salmonella dublin in California between 1980 and 1983. The team, which also included principal investigators Dr. Sander Greenland, associate professor of epidemiology, and Dr. Ellie J. C. Goldstein, associate clinical professor of medicine, interviewed manufacturers of the product and health officials.
The study’s authors write that there should be increased attention directed toward the large number of Salmonella dublin cases that are not attributed to certified raw milk. The report also states that those individuals in generally good health are at minimum risk of potential contamination from raw milk.