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Farm visit without stomach pains

11/2009, 29.05.2009

BfR advice - Young children should not drink raw milk

In summer farms are particularly population destinations for kindergarten groups and school classes. Sometimes, however, the excursion has unwanted consequences. The Federal Institute of Risk Assessment (BfR) receives notifications time and time again of cases of illness caused by the consumption of raw milk during these outings. Raw milk may contain pathogens like EHEC bacteria or Campylobacter. The bacteria cause infections that can lead to serious damage to health especially in young children. Milk is a high quality food with many nutrients that children need to grow. However, "Raw milk should always be heated prior to consumption to avoid children contracting a food-borne infection," recommends Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel, the President of BfR.

BfR receives information over and over again about outbreaks of disease that occurred after the consumption of raw milk on farms from the nationwide registration system for foods involved in outbreaks (BELA). The infections are caused by Campylobacter or EHEC bacteria and can trigger severe diarrhoeal illnesses particularly in children. In some cases they can even lead to kidney damage.

EHEC bacteria, a special form of Coli bacteria, are present for instance in the intestines of cows and are excreted in faeces. As milk comes into contact with cow faeces during milking, contamination with bacteria cannot be ruled out. These bacteria can cause severe, bloody diarrhoea in humans. When infected, young children are especially at risk of developing Haemolytic-Uraemic Syndrome (HUS), which can lead to permanent kidney damage and even to the death of the infected child. By contrast, an infection with EHEC bacteria can go undetected in adults as they may not present any symptoms.

Campylobacter are bacteria that are ubiquitous in nature and are also found in the intestines of game, domestic animals and livestock. They are major pathogens of diarrhoeal diseases in humans and are mostly transmitted through foods of animal origin. Every year more than 50,000 cases of campylobacteriosis are notified in Germany. Children under the age of 5 are particularly affected.

Besides EHEC and Campylobacter other pathogens like Salmonella, Listeria and pathogens of Q-fever can also reach milk. Food-borne infections can, however, be prevented by heating milk sufficiently, for instance through pasteurisation or boiling, Milk consumed directly during farm visits should be heat-treated, too. Before eating or drinking anything, children should wash their hands thoroughly because pathogens can also be transmitted through contact with animals.

On the grounds of consumer health protection, the distribution of raw milk to consumers is, in principle, banned. An exception is made in the case of farms which have been given permission by the competent public authority to sell raw milk with the designation “attested milk”. The precondition is that they must comply with the statutory requirements. They include, for instance, monthly microbiological controls. Dairy farms may also distribute “raw milk from the farm” to consumers when they have notified this distribution to the public authorities. The clear wording “Boil raw milk prior to consumption” must, nonetheless, be displayed at the point of distribution.

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