UNC Public health school serves raw milk cheese at welcome reception

Although North Carolina is largely seen as a basketball-first state, college football is definitely king during the fall months. Despite a current top-25 ranking for Carolina, and a less-than-stellar start of the season for N.C. State (a last minute one-point win over Georgia Southern) the two schools are gearing up for the all-important rivalry game in November. The rivalry often spills over into other areas; including public health and food safety.

Liz Rogawski, a student at UNC Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Public Health writes in a letter to The Daily Tarheel,

raw-milk-cheese-940x626Students, faculty, and staff in the School of Public Health today were welcomed to the fall semester with a large selection of local delicacies as part of the welcome-back social. The spread included raw milk cheese — cheese that is made from unpasteurized milk. The irony of serving raw milk cheese in a school of public health is hard to miss. Pasteurization, which kills harmful bacteria, is one of public health’s finest achievements in disease prevention.

Raw milk is “150 times more likely to cause foodborne illness and results in 13 times more hospitalizations than illnesses involving pasteurized dairy products,” according to the Food and Drug Administration website (this is from a CDC-authored paper -ben).

The serving of raw milk cheese puts our students and staff at unnecessary risk of diseases that have been prevented by pasteurization since the mid-19th century. Luckily, we have plenty of epidemiologists around to investigate any disease outbreaks if needed.

The CDC-authored paper that Rogawski cites reports that between 1993-2006, “of the 65 outbreaks involving cheese, 27 (42%) involved cheese made from nonpasteurized milk. Of the 56 outbreaks involving fluid milk, an even higher percentage (82%) involved nonpasteurized milk.”

The raw data shows more outbreaks related to pasteurized-milk cheeses compared to unpasteurized-milk the relative risk tells a different story.

The authors go on to say:

Because consumption of nonpasteurized dairy products is uncommon in the United States, the high incidence of outbreaks and outbreak-associated illness involving nonpasteurized dairy products is remarkable and greatly disproportionate to the incidence involving dairy products that were marketed, labeled, or otherwise presented as pasteurized.

A 2013  joint FDA/Health Canada risk assessment detailed the relative risks.

While there are foodborne illness risk differences between soft and hard unpasteuized cheeses due to the influence of water activity, raw milk cheeses, regardless of aging carry increased risk (see this 2013 outbreak and others as well as D’Amico and colleagues, 60-day aging requirement does not ensure safety of surface-mold-ripened soft cheeses manufactured from raw or pasteurized milk when Listeria monocytogenes is introduced as a post processing contaminant).

Communicating the risk to the eaters is important, I’m all about informed choice.

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.