Cutting Through the Propaganda on Raw Milk and Brucellosis

Various media have been waging one of the bigger anti-raw milk propaganda campaigns in memory through their reporting on a recent individual case of brucellosis attributed to raw milk consumption. The media are using the case of the third individual incidence of brucellosis blamed on raw milk consumption in the past year and a half to warn the public that people are putting their health in jeopardy if they don’t consume milk that is pasteurized. The illnesses occurred in Texas in August 2017, New Jersey in October 2017 and New York in November 2018 with the latest illness blamed on Miller’s Biodiversity Farm of Quarryville, Pennsylvania; there is currently a quarantine in effect prohibiting the farm from distributing raw dairy products. A cow that tested positive for Brucella has been removed from the dairy herd.

The media have been taking their cues from press releases issued by public health departments that have been giving the advice to pasteurize all milk. However, the solution to avoid getting brucellosis is far different from what public health and the media are telling you. In the words of one healthcare professional, “For public health officials to issue public notices that the solution to this avoidable problem is to pasteurize all milk, is astonishing.”

First off, the three cases of brucellosis are the only known cases attributed to raw milk consumption over the past 20 years. Brucellosis is a systemic disease in cattle and humans that is caused by the bacteria Brucella abortus. At one time the disease in cows caused severe reductions in offspring and was a problem for the cattle industry. A national eradication campaign was launched in the 1950s and, according to USDA statistics, the number of cattle/bison herds affected by brucellosis in the U.S. has been less than 10 every year from 2003 onward.1

The eradication program’s success has led to a huge decline in the number of brucellosis cases in humans; estimates are that there are about 100 cases of human brucellosis per year in this country.2 In the U.S. this is mainly an occupational disease with most of the rare cases of brucellosis being in people who attended the birth of an infected cow and then became infected during handling of the birth tissues and fluids.3,4

In an infected dairy cow, the Brucella abortus pathogen can proliferate in the mammary glands and then enter the milk. The pathogen can pass to humans when drinking the infected milk but, as mentioned, the cases of brucellosis (also known as undulant fever) attributed to drinking raw milk in the U.S. are extremely rare.

The “milk ring test” is the traditional and commonly used method to screen dairy herds to detect any cows with brucellosis; the test is performed on the herd’s milk to check for the rare presence of Brucella antibodies.

Two vaccines against brucellosis have been developed for calves: the S19 vaccine and the RB51 vaccine. The S19 vaccine is effective but it has the disadvantage of causing testing for antibodies to become positive. The vaccine can make it difficult to distinguish between a vaccinated cow and an infected cow. The RB51 vaccine does not cause the antibody testing of cows to become positive but another problem arises with its use.

The RB51 vaccine must be administered to calves before they become fertile; a side effect is that, if a cow is given the RB51 vaccine when pregnant, it may actually cause an infection with the vaccine strain of Brucella in the vaccinated cow. It is, therefore, possible that if the RB51 vaccine isn’t given strictly according to the protocol, the vaccinated cow may become infected and may shed the pathogen (i.e., the RB51 strain of Brucella) into the milk.

Public health officials have found in all three cases of illness from brucellosis attributed to raw milk consumption, the strain of Brucella abortus discovered in the three individuals was the RB51 vaccine strain. In fact, in November 2017, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture sent a letter to licensed raw milk producers in the state advising them to stop immunizing cows from brucellosis with the RB51 vaccine.5

So the solution to preventing brucellosis in raw milk is not for producers to pasteurize the milk but rather to either stop giving their herd the RB51 vaccine or to make sure their vets give the calves the vaccine before the calves become fertile. Worth noting, too, is that hundreds of people drank raw milk produced by the herds responsible for the three cases of brucellosis and, as far as is known, no one else became sick.

In the meantime, the media fear-mongering continues on. The latest case of brucellosis attributed to raw milk consumption dates back to November 2018, but to read the stories in the media, you would have thought it was just discovered. CDC press releases on this latest case dated January 23, 2019, and February 11, 2019, are providing the impetus for the flood of media reports.

Has an agenda ever gotten so much mileage over three illnesses?

A fear-inciting statement from the February 11 CDC press release that the media have parroted is, “the CDC and state health officials are investigating potential exposures, to Brucella strain RB51 in 19 states, connected to consuming raw (unpasteurized) milk from Miller’s Biodiversity Farm in Quarryville, Pennsylvania.”6 (The farm allegedly distributed raw milk to people in the 19 states listed later in the release.) Being exposed to a pathogen is far different than being sickened by it; we are exposed to various pathogenic bacteria such as listeria and e. coli in the environment every day.

One headline screamed, “Deadly Disease Caused by Raw Milk Has Already Put 19 U.S. States on High Alert.”7 There have been no deaths from brucellosis attributed to raw milk consumption since the eradication program succeeded in substantially eliminating the incidence of the disease and possibly even long before then.

The public health agencies and their allies in the press have been misleading the public long enough on raw milk and brucellosis. It’s time for fear and hysteria to give way to science and common sense.

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1 “Brucellosis Affected Cattle/Bison Herds by State, FY 1997-2018” graph [PDF]. USDA-APHIS National Brucellosis Eradication Program (September 10, 2018), https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/animalhealth/animal-disease-information/cattle-disease-information/national-brucellosis-eradication/brucellosis-eradication-program

2 “Facts About Brucellosis” [PDF]. USDA-APHIS National Brucellosis Eradication Program, Section “Resources” link (see question #21), https://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_health/animal_diseases/brucellosis/downloads/bruc-facts.pdf

3 “How Brucellosis is Spread” section. USDA-APHIS National Brucellosis Eradication Program (September 10, 2018) [PDF], https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/animalhealth/animal-disease-information/cattle-disease-information/national-brucellosis-eradication/brucellosis-eradication-program

4 “Fast Facts: Brucellosis, Undulant Fever” [PDF]. Iowa State University, The Center for Food Security & Public Health. April 2008, http://www.cfsph.iastate.edu/FastFacts/pdfs/brucellosis_F.pdf

5 Letter dated November 30, 2017 [PDF]. Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Animal Health and Diagnostic Services, Dr. David Wolfgang (Director) and Dr. Lydia Johnson (Director, Bureau of Food Safety & Laboratory Services); accessed at https://www.yourfamilyfarmer.com/uploads/documents/RB51-Brucellosis-Letter-PDA-2017.pdf

6 Media Statement [PDF]. CDC (February 11, 2019),
https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2019/s0211-brucellosis-raw-milk.html

7 “Deadly Disease Caused by Raw Milk Has Already Put 19 U.S. States on High Alert” [PDF]. ScienceAlert.com, Carly Cassella (February 15, 2019), https://www.sciencealert.com/it-s-dangerous-to-drink-raw-milk-the-cdc-warns-for-the-umpteenth-time

FDA Antibiotic Test Requirement Threatens to Cut Raw Milk Supply in Pennsylvania


Controversial antibiotic test requirements imposed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will be going into effect next month in Pennsylvania. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA), Pennsylvania will be the last state to implement the testing requirements; FDA initially issued them in 2011.1 The requirements will especially impact raw milk farmers who sell part of their production to dairy cooperatives for pasteurization as well as selling raw milk direct to the consumer or through retail stores. The main reason that the FDA testing mandate has received much more attention than in any other state is that there are more producers in Pennsylvania than any other state whose raw milk goes for both pasteurization and for direct consumption. Thanks to laws in neighboring states that either restrict or prohibit raw milk sales or distribution to consumers in both the northeastern and mid-Atlantic regions rely on Pennsylvania raw milk producers for their sustenance.

The antibiotic testing requirements are that farmers producing either raw milk for pasteurization or raw milk to be manufactured into other dairy products (such as raw or pasteurized cheese) must test every batch of raw milk produced for antibiotic residue even if the producer’s dairy operation is certified organic. Producers who only produce raw milk for human consumption are not subject to the FDA testing requirement. Producers subject to the testing mandate will either have to do their own testing on equipment that could cost thousands of dollars to purchase, pay thousands each year for testing by a state-approved lab or, in the case of producers selling to a co-op, wait to get test results (milk haulers transporting milk for co-ops collect samples for testing of each batch of raw milk they pick up from a farm belonging to the co-op). Producers cannot commingle any milk from a subsequent batch until they get test results back from the co-op; further complicating matters is the fact that co-ops typically do not report test results to member farmers at all, much less on a timely basis. PDA has gotten reports of producers working with co-ops to create a process for timely reporting of test results but it remains to be seen how these efforts pan out.

Dairy Farmers of America, a co-op with a history of strong opposition to legalizing raw milk sales for human consumption, controls a substantial percentage of raw milk produced for pasteurization in Pennsylvania, possibly over one-half of the total. Trickling Springs Creamery, a well-known Pennsylvania co-op, has already notified its members that one hundred percent of their production must go to the co-op; members will not be able to retain any raw milk for retail sales or for manufacturing into any other dairy product. If a farmer selling raw milk to a co-op for pasteurization is found to violate the antibiotic testing requirements, FDA can not only stop the farmer’s shipments to the co-op, it can shut down the co-op from making any shipments in interstate commerce.

To its credit, PDA (with FDA’s approval) has established a variance process, where those dairies it grants a variance will be exempt from the antibiotic testing requirements.2 Forty farmers have applied for the variance so far; out of the sixteen applications PDA has reviewed, it has approved seven for a variance. Those eligible for the variance include those farmers that pasteurize and bottle all the raw milk they produce and those manufacturing other dairy products only from raw milk produced on their farm. Producers selling any of their raw milk production to a co-op are not eligible for a variance per order of FDA; the nine applications PDA rejected were all from those selling part of their production to a co-op.

A PDA official estimated that as many as one-half of the 68 Pennsylvania dairies permitted to produce and sell raw milk for human consumption are Grade A dairies that sell some of their milk production to a co-op. If these dairies aren’t able to make a workable arrangement with their co-ops on reporting test results, the cost of antibiotic testing could drive many to drop their permits and get out of the raw milk business when antibiotic residues in the milk was never a problem for any of them to begin with. The FDA testing requirement, in their cases, has nothing to do with protecting the public health.

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[1] Public Health Service/FDA, Appendix N Drug Residue Testing and Farm Surveillance, “Grade A” Pasteurized Milk Ordinance 2015 Revision; pp. 374-379. Note: the PMO is a document governing the production distribution, and transportation of raw milk intended for pasteurization; Pennsylvania and nearly all other states have adopted the PMO and the other states must have standards at least as strict. Accessed 12/20/2017 at https://www.fda.gov/downloads/food/guidanceregulation/guidancedocumentsregulatoryinformation/milk/ucm513508.pdf
[2] PDA Commissioner Russell Redding, Letter to Pennsylvania Milk Permitholder, 4 October 2017. Subject: Update on Implementation of Drug Residue Testing Requirements of FDA’s Appendix N of the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance”

Lifelong Raw Milk Drinker “Would Never Touch that Pasteurized Stuff”

Chester Ice, now 75 years old and still going strong, has been drinking raw milk all his life. Born in rural West Virginia, Chester and his two brothers grew up drinking fresh milk that their father milked from his three Jersey cows every morning and every evening.

“I was raised on raw milk from the time I was taken off my mother’s breast milk. I am 75 years old now. So, raw milk can’t be all that dangerous,” Chester concludes. Continue reading