Drinking raw milk is an udderly risky thing to do. There are millions upon millions of reasons why this is the case—namely all the dangerous microbes that can remain active in milk that has not been pasteurized. So, it’s no real surprise that drinking raw milk has been linked to an outbreak of campylobacteriosis in Utah. This outbreak has already left at least 14 people sick, according to the Salt Lake County Health Department (SLCoHD). Those who have gotten sick have ranged in age from 2 to 73 years with 12 of them having already confirmed that they drank raw moo.
Yeah, there’s a reason why scientists decided that pasteurizing milk is a good idea like over a century ago. The process got its name from Louis Pasteur, a French microbiologist who in the 1860s showed that heating wine to certain temperatures could deactivate various unwelcome microbes and thus put a cork on infections from drinking the wine. When it comes to milk, the standard for pasteurization is heating milk to at least 145° F for at least 30 minutes. Bringing this heat can then deactivate nasty bacteria such as Brucella, E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria, and, yes, Camplyobacter, which is nicknamed “Campy” and is the bad bugger behind campylobacteriosis. The risk of various bacterial infections is one of the big reasons why people don’t tend to drink milk straight from a cow’s udder.
Of all the things that you might want to get from the supermarket, campylobacteriosis is not one of them. Consuming something contaminated with Campylobacter can lead to some big time tummy trouble. Symptoms typically start within two to five days of the bacteria going down your hatch. Common symptoms include fever, abdominal cramps and diarrhea, which is often bloody. There can also be nausea and vomiting. Now, if your immune system is strong, you’ll usually fully recover after about a week of getting far too familiar with the toilet and not need any antibiotic treatment along the way.
However, bigger problems can emerge when Campylobacter goes from being just a gut feeling to getting into your bloodstream. This is when antibiotics tend to be needed because once in the bloodstream the bacteria can cause all sorts of problems including life-threatening ones. That’s especially the case if your immune system is weaker such as when you are a kid or an older adult or have some type of chronic medical condition.
Speaking of immune system, in about one out every 1,000 campylobacteriosis cases, one’s immune system can kind of overreact. It ends up attacking the protective covering around the axons of nerve cells in a condition called Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS). This can result in muscle weakness or even paralysis—sometimes life-threatening paralysis.
Again, Campylobacter is just one type of nasty microbe that can be hanging out in raw milk. And if you think your nose knows when something like Campylobacter is in raw milk, you’d be wrong. Just because milk looks or smells fine doesn’t mean that it isn’t Campy or doesn’t have any other type of bad bacteria floating in it.
This latest outbreak certainly hasn’t been the first of its kind in Utah. In fact, since 2009, Utah has had 25 documented raw milk-associated Campylobacter outbreaks, resulting in 295 people becoming ill. So, if you insist on drinking raw milk, you will be playing some diarrhea roulette or craps or an even worse game of gambling. If this isn’t the type of game that you want to play, it’s best to put your milk to Pasteur and make sure that it’s been properly pasteurized.