Dairy first in food hospitalizations
BY RICK BARRETT, McClatchy-Tribune
MILWAUKEE -- Dairy products accounted for more foodborne-illness hospitalizations over an 11-year period than 16 other commodity foods, says a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
One of the big concerns is raw milk and other unpasteurized dairy products, John Painter, one of the study's authors, said in an interview last week.
Consumption of raw milk has pitted regulators against consumers who believe the health benefits of drinking unpasteurized milk straight from the farm outweigh risks of foodborne illness caused by bacteria such as E. coli.
The study, scheduled to be published in the March edition of Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal, also says leafy vegetables and dairy products were among the top contributors to foodborne illnesses.
"What really jumped out at us was the large number of illnesses associated with vegetables and produce. It's a food that's generally very safe and is part of a healthy diet. We want people to eat more vegetables," Painter said.
Dairy products ranked second, resulting in 1.3 million illnesses and 10 percent of foodborne-illness deaths from 1998 through 2008. Dairy products accounted for the most hospitalizations, 16 percent, followed by leafy vegetables, 14 percent, poultry, fruits and nuts.
Milk, cheese and ice cream are big contributors to foodborne illness, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington consumer advocacy group that studies food issues, said about the CDC report.
"The risk from dairy products has increased in recent years with the rise in popularity of unpasteurized raw milk and cheeses. People who consume unpasteurized dairy products have no protection from hazards like E. coli O157 and salmonella that are commonly found in dairy cattle," the Center for Science in the Public Interest said.
The study used data from thousands of illness outbreaks to estimate the number of illnesses attributed to each of 17 food commodities. Over the 11-year period studied, 277 people died from foodborne illnesses linked to poultry and 140 died from illnesses linked to dairy products, according to the study.
Since a large volume of dairy products is consumed in the United States, even infrequent contamination of commercially distributed products can result in many illnesses, the study noted.
The data didn't distinguish between pasteurized and unpasteurized products, which critics said was a flaw in the study.
"To say that raw dairy is likely to cause many foodborne illness outbreaks, when the study doesn't even have any statistics to back that up, is speculation," said Kimberly Hartke, spokeswoman for the Real Milk Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based advocate for raw milk products.
But a CDC study published a year ago found the rate for disease outbreaks caused by raw dairy products was 150 times higher than for pasteurized milk. That study said that milk consumption was responsible for 121 disease outbreaks, causing 4,413 illnesses, 239 hospitalizations and three deaths from 1993 to 2006 -- and that raw milk products were the cause of 60 percent of the outbreaks.