Health warning follows death of toddler who drank unpasteurised milk
The owner of an Australian organic food company said she was in shock after an unpasteurised milk product sold by her business was associated with the death of a toddler.
The three-year-old, from the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, died after consuming Mountain View Organic Bath Milk, which Vicki Jones said was labelled as being “not for human consumption” and “for cosmetic purposes only”.
Health authorities issued a warning on Thursday morning about consuming the products, saying four other children had become seriously ill recently after drinking unpasteurised milk products sold as “bath” or “cosmetic” milk.
Three of the children developed haemolytic uraemic syndrome, associated with a toxic strain of E.coli bacteria and which can lead to kidney failure, while the others developed cryptosporidiosis, a parasitic infection commonly associated with gastro.
Victoria’s minister for emergency services, Jane Garrett, said she had urgently raised the issue with the federal minister for small business, Bruce Billson, calling for an investigation into raw milk labelling.
She said regulators from around Australia were meeting to consider whether the product should be recalled, or even banned.
“I have asked Consumer Affairs Victoria to begin a statewide education campaign, alerting consumers and parents to the dangers of unpasteurised milk,” Garrett said. “This information will be distributed through maternal and healthcare centres, hospitals, day care centres and all other health outlets.”
Since the 1940s it has been compulsory to pasteurise cow’s milk in Australia, which involves heating it for a very short time to kill pathogens. The sale of unpasteurised milk for human consumption is illegal in Victoria, but it is sold in health food shops for cosmetic purposes.
Jones defended her product, saying it was “very good” for treating skin conditions and was never meant to be consumed.
“I don’t know what consumers do with the milk when they take it home,” Jones told Guardian Australia. “But I know there has been a big movement in support of raw milk for consumption. The health department has now been in contact with us, and we’ve told them we’ll do whatever they recommend, including adding extra labelling to the product.”
Jones said a series of tests had since been carried out on the product and they all came back with undetectable levels of the pathogens. She said the product had been sold for about four years and this was the first time she’d heard of it causing illness.
Victoria’s chief health officer, Dr Rosemary Lester, warned only a small number pathogens were needed to cause illness.
“Everyone is vulnerable to illness caused by the pathogens present in raw milk, but the risks are even greater for young children and for the elderly, those with underlying health problems, immunocompromised or pregnant,” Lester said.
The family of the dead child had suffered a “terrible loss” she told reporters on Thursday. It was important to re-emphasise the dangers of ingesting products labelled not for human consumption, she said.
“There is pasteurisation of milk for a good reason,” she said. “Raw milk is not healthy and wholesome and good for you. The risk of consuming it is too great and this cluster [of sick children] highlights that.”
Health department spokesman Bram Alexander said it was unknown whether the labels had been deliberately ignored, or whether consumers had mistakenly thought the milk was for drinking. He also could not say why there had been a sudden spike in cases involving toddlers. But there was a notion among the public that “pure” equated to “healthy”.
“Unpasteurised milk is not pure,” he said. “It contains pathogens and parasites. We also want to emphasise that milk is an excellent source of nutrition, vitamins and minerals and we would want people to continue to drink appropriate milk, that is, pasteurised milk.”
He said he did not know what other brands of unpasteurised milk were involved in making the other children sick.
Food Standards Australia New Zealand is reviewing whether to allow soft cheeses to be made with raw milk, with farmers arguing pasteurisation takes away from the flavour.
An infectious diseases physician and microbiologist, Professor Peter Collignon, said that argument may be true but consumers and farmers needed to be aware that the cost of allowing raw milk to be used was an increased risk of infections.
“The problem is milk comes from the udder, essentially the rear end of the cow,” he said. “You run a big risk that milk gets contaminated with bugs from the bowels of cow.”
No matter what precautions are taken by dairy farmers during milking, there could be no guarantee the milk would be free from harmful bacteria, making pasteurisation essential, Dr Lester said.
He said an animal could go from having undetectable levels of pathogens in their milk to being contaminated very quickly.
“One of the thing we know is cows may have these bugs present depending on everything from what they eat [to] how much rain there has been, as rain increases risk of listeria, and a cow with no problems one week can show pathogens in their milk the next.”
Pasteurisation had been so successful at eliminating disease-causing agents that some members of the public mistakenly thought it was no longer necessary, he said.