September 18, 2020

Did Raw Milk Cheese Cause E. coli Food Poisoning Outbreak in Missouri?

Public health officials have announced an outbreak of E. coli in northwest Missouri that has sickened several people. And a recall of aged raw milk cheese for possible E. coli contamination was announced yesterday. Are the two connected? We decided to take a look back at outbreaks caused by raw milk and raw milk cheeses to see how common they are.

Cheese-platterMost dairy-related food poisoning outbreaks are linked to raw milk, according to the CDC. A study reviewing dairy outbreaks from 1993 to 2006 found 121 outbreaks that caused 4,413 illnesses, 239 hospitalizations, and three deaths. Raw milk products were the cause in 60%, or 73 of the outbreaks. But far fewer people drink raw milk than pasteurized milk.  The amount of pasteurized milk produced during that time period was 2.7 trillion pounds. But the amount of raw milk consumed during that time period was 27 billion pounds. That’s how the government determined that raw milk was 150 times more likely to cause illness than pasteurized milk.

Food safety attorney Fred Pritzker has called for an outright ban on the consumption of raw milk products by children. “Raw milk is dangerous for anyone, but especially for children,” he said. Children have been sickened in 79% of raw milk outbreaks since 1998.

Since 2010, there have been 26 outbreaks in the United States linked to raw milk, and two outbreaks linked to aged raw milk cheese. That number doesn’t include this most recent outbreak. A study was conducted last year and published in Food Microbiology that states aged raw milk cheese is “relatively” safe.  As the cheese ages, its water content decreases and the acid content increases, making it less hospitable to bacteria. Salt added to the cheese also helps keep bacteria at bay. The cheese must be aged for at least 60 days, at temperatures not less than 35 degrees F.

But consumers have no way of knowing whether the cheese has actually been properly aged when they buy it. And that caveat “relatively” should discourage many people from consuming even aged raw milk cheeses.

As a matter of course, those in high risk groups, including the very young, the elderly, pregnant women, and those with chronic illnesses and compromised immune systems, should not consume raw milk, raw milk products, and other high risk foods such as raw or undercooked eggs and undercooked ground meat. The odds are greater that those foods will contain pathogenic bacteria.

And remember that reported outbreaks do not include every person who became ill. For E. coli outbreaks, the government estimates that illnesses are underreported by a factor of 30.


  1. Wasn’t there a huge salmonella outbreak that was linked to pasteurized milk that sickened thousands (like 15,000 people)? I hope those numbers are included in your stats, but i don’t remember reading about it in the CDC publications at the time….although I have seen that outbreak referred to in other publications.

    Individuals should have the right to choose the food they want to eat, but they must also know the risks. Unfortunately, it is left to the individual to find out as much as they can, as neither the pro raw milk crowd, nor government agencies (CDC) can be counted on to provide all of the facts involved, and will manipulate data to serve their own interests. What a shame.

    • Linda Larsen says

      There was an outbreak in 2000 in Pennsylvania caused by pasteurized milk that sickened 93 people. But that product was contaminated after pasteurization. The problem with raw milk is that it is inherently contaminated as it comes from the cow because the cow’s anus is located right next to her udders.

      Any product can be contaminated at any point along the supply and production chain. And I did find the outbreak you’re referring to. It was in 1985 and sickened 16,000 people. Again, the product was contaminated after pasteurization. I stand by the fact that raw milk causes far more outbreaks and illnesses than pasteurized milk, especially considering that far fewer people consume raw milk. Those statistics from the CDC are accurate.

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