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Raw milk: boiling protects against infections

11/2014, 20.05.2014

Children, pregnant women, elderly and sick persons should refrain from consuming raw milk and raw milk products

Especially in the summer months, holidaymakers are fond of buying fresh milk directly from farmers. In addition, farms with cows and milk tasting are popular excursion destinations for school and kindergarten groups. However, the fact that consuming raw milk can lead to illness is evidently not sufficiently understood as shown by reports on outbreaks of disease received by the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) every year. "Raw milk from the farm should always be boiled prior to consumption, because it may be contaminated with pathogens such as campylobacter or EHEC", explains Prof. Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel, President of the BfR. Children, pregnant women, elderly and sick people in particular should refrain from consuming raw milk and raw milk products. This recommendation also applies to school and other groups of children visiting farms.

Every year, the BfR receives reports on outbreaks of disease caused by the consumption of raw milk on farms or during holidays in the countryside. Most frequently, this leads to infections with campylobacter which usually manifest themselves as diarrhoea, fever and abdominal pain. Less frequently, EHEC infections following farm visits have been reported. However, EHEC infections are often much more severe. Notably in small children, EHEC infections can lead to haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS) which can in term cause lasting kidney damage.

Both campylobacter and EHEC bacteria are found, for example, in the intestine of cattle and are excreted with the faeces. For this reason, the pathogens can get into the milk during the milking process. In addition, other pathogens such as salmonella, listeria and the Q fever pathogen can be contained in raw milk. Through sufficient heating of the milk, for example through pasteurisation, ultra heat treatment or boiling, existing pathogens are killed off, however.

To ensure protection against infections, the sale of raw milk is generally banned in Germany. One exception to this rule is the sale of “milk from the farm”: farmers who offer “milk from the farm” do not have to comply with special hygienic requirements. However, at point of sale, a clear notice must be displayed saying “raw milk - boil before consumption”.

Another exception is the sale of so-called “certified raw milk”. This is packed raw milk, available in retail stores, from specially controlled farms. Certified raw milk may be consumed raw due to the special hygienic regulations and controls in place. However, it cannot be excluded that even certified raw milk contains pathogens that can cause infections in especially sensitive groups of persons.

The packaging of certified milk contains a note making it compulsory to store the milk at a maximum of 8° C. In addition, the term “raw milk” and the use-by date must appear on the packaging. The use-by date specifies the date by which especially perishable goods should be consumed. For certified raw milk the rule applies that the use-by date must not exceed 96 hours from the time of milking. Consumers must observe the storage instructions under all circumstances. If intended for risk groups, even certified milk must be boiled before consumption.

Raw milk sold from the farm and certified raw milk must not be sold in communal catering facilities such as canteens and hospital kitchens.

About the BfR

The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientific institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL). It advises the Federal Government and Federal Laender on questions of food, chemical and product safety. The BfR conducts its own research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.

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