By Dr. Mercola
An outbreak of the foodborne illness listeriosis has been reported by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)… you get this potentially serious infection by eating food contaminated with the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes.
This is the disease the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) often uses as its “poster child” in its warnings against drinking raw milk, but this actually deflects from the fact that people are dying from listeria found in other commonly eaten foods.
Perhaps the FDA and the CDC should start letting people know that raw milk is not the only source of listeria… nor is it the most common one! In the latest outbreak, reported in February 2014, people were sickened by eating cheese… that was pasteurized.
Pasteurized Mexican Cheeses at Root of Latest Listeria Outbreak
According to the CDC, a total of eight people have been infected with listeria in two states (Maryland and California). One person has died. The illnesses have been traced back to soft or semi-soft Hispanic-style cheese made by Roos Foods of Kenton, Delaware.
The cheeses have been recalled and the CDC is warning consumers not to eat any of the following brands of cheese manufactured or repackaged by Roos Foods:
- Santa Rosa De Lima
Past listeria outbreaks have been linked to soft ripened cheeses made from unpasteurized milk, particularly queso fresco, a fresh Mexican cheese. But in this case it appears the cheeses that caused the listeria outbreak were pasteurized. According to Food Safety News:1 “The cheeses were pasteurized and not sold as raw milk products.”
When Will Raw Milk Stop Being the Scapegoat?
Listeriosis is generally a mild illness in healthy people, causing few or no symptoms. But people with compromised immune systems and pregnant women are at more serious risk.
In pregnant women, listeriosis can cause miscarriage, premature delivery, infection, or death to the newborn. In the current outbreak, for instance, five of the illnesses were related to pregnancy (two mother-newborn pairs and one newborn).
It is therefore very important that people at high risk receive reliable information about how to best lower their risk of contracting this infection. US health officials are doing a disservice by highlighting raw milk as though it is the largest risk factor for this disease.
According to the CDC, 1,600 illnesses and 260 deaths due to listeriosis occur every year in the US. What foods are responsible for the most recent listeria outbreaks? According to CDC data:2
- 2011: Whole cantaloupes were responsible for 147 illnesses, 33 deaths, and one miscarriage. This was the largest listeriosis outbreak in US history.
- 2012: Pasteurized Frescolina Marte brand ricotta salata cheese sickened 22 people, and four deaths occurred.
- 2013: Three types of pasteurized cheese made by Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese Company of Waterloo, Wisconsin sickened six people, with one death reported.
- 2014: Pasteurized cheese products made by Roos Foods have sickened eight people with one death reported so far.
The fact of the matter is, due to health officials fear-mongering regarding raw milk, many people immediately equate listeria with raw milk. But as you can see, all recent outbreaks have involved produce or pasteurized milk products. A 2011 study also revealed deli meats to be the most risky choice, as ready-to-eat foods like these can become contaminated after cooking during the packaging process.3
According to the 2011 report, the risks associated with deli meats from the supermarket deli are five times higher than for prepackaged deli meats. Raw vegetables are also a potential source of contamination, as are other meats.
Can raw milk and raw-milk cheese cause listeriosis? If it’s contaminated, yes. But so can fresh produce, meats and pasteurized dairy products… yet these latter foods – responsible for the last four listeriosis outbreaks in the US -- receive only a fraction of the mention that raw milk does in regards to “high-risk” foods for listeria contamination. The US FDA tells pregnant women that pasteurized cheeses and milk are safe to eat without warning that they, too, have caused listeriosis.
Food-Borne Illness Can Occur from Virtually Any Food
An estimated one in six Americans gets sick every year from contaminated food. Sometimes this results in a 24-hour bout of diarrhea and vomiting that clears on its own, but in other cases food-borne pathogens can lead to organ failure, paralysis, neurological impairment, blindness, stillbirths, and even death. Health officials have been waging a war against raw milk, but it’s not an inherently “risky” food.
It’s important to keep in mind that the potential for foodborne illness applies to ANY food, and where it comes from is probably the greatest indicator of whether it’s likely to be safe or contaminated.
For instance, in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), large groups of animals are kept in a small space, oftentimes without natural light or access to the outdoors. The conditions are filthy, with animals standing in one another's waste. Needless to say, harmful bacteria naturally thrive in these conditions.
To combat disease (and promote unnatural growth), the animals are fed antibiotics, the result of which is they become living and breathing “bioreactors” for the generation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. They may also receive hormones, which increase milk production, and they're fed a diet of grains and soy (most of which is now the genetically engineered variety) rather than grass, which alters their gut flora and makes them even more prone to disease.
I wouldn’t touch milk that came from a CAFO unless it had been pasteurized, as it’s virtually guaranteed to be contaminated. This isn’t the case, however, for milk that comes from a small, well-run organic farm. But this isn’t only true for milk – it goes for meat and eggs, too. It should come as absolutely no surprise that, after reviewing data on the 14 pathogens that cause 95 percent of total cases of food-borne illness, the top-ranked pathogen-food combinations most likely to make you sick came from CAFO meats, including:4
- Chickens and turkey (contaminated with campylobacter or salmonella)
- Pork (contaminated with toxoplasma)
- Deli meats (contaminated with listeria)
- Eggs (contaminated with salmonella)
Contaminated produce, especially tomatoes, sprouts and cantaloupe, were also major food poisoning risks as were so-called "complex foods" – foods that contain a number of ingredients so that the specific culprit could not be pinpointed. Often these foods came from restaurants, which suggests contamination may have occurred during preparation or cooking. The report found: "…Consumption of FDA-regulated foods is estimated to cause about half of the overall national burden of foodborne disease.” So the real solution to creating healthier, safer foods lies in cleaning up the growing conditions and processing plants, and most certainly in returning farming to a small-scale basis – not in vilifying one beneficial food like raw milk.
Tips for Avoiding Food-Borne Illness
Sometimes, food-borne illness may be inevitable, but there are steps you can take to lower your risk. This includes commonsense measures like washing your hands and sanitizing counters/cutting boards after handling potentially contaminated foods, rinsing fruits and vegetables before eating, and storing foods at the proper temperature. One important factor impacting whether your food is “safe” isn’t total storage time, but rather how much time it spends in the temperature “danger zone” (between 40-120 degrees F).5 You’ll want to avoid leaving your groceries in a hot car for too long, for instance, as this will generally promote food-borne illness.
Ultimately, though, the key to making sure that any food you eat is safe is to get it from a high-quality source. I can't stress the importance of this enough. When you get your produce from small farmers that raise their food in natural settings using clean water, as opposed to massive agribusiness conglomerations that use sewage sludge as fertilizer, there is very little risk in eating these foods raw. The same goes for meat, eggs, and raw dairy products, as well. If you’re interested in raw milk, here are tips for finding high-quality raw milk sources.
I also suggest browsing through my Sustainable Agriculture resource page to find farmer's markets, family farms, and other sources of safe, high-quality food. Not only are these sources likely to raise food in more sanitary conditions than a conventional agribusiness farm, but there's a better chance that it will also be locally grown. The closer you are to the source of your food, the fewer hands it has to pass through and the less time it will sit in storage -- so the better, and likely safer, it will be for you and your family.
Finally, along with the practical precautions mentioned above, lowering your chances of becoming ill from food poisoning also involves keeping your immune system healthy by following these five steps to boost your immune system health.