Clean Freak: Is our Fear of Bacteria Making us Sick?

We disinfect, we sterilize, we pasteurize. We've made bacteria Enemy No. 1, but playing it safe might be what's making us sick. 

By Erin Millar

Illustrations: Takeshi. colagene.com

The gaggle of reporters waiting inside Queen's Park in Toronto on Friday, November 4, 2011, no doubt expected a feeble, exhausted radical when dairy farmer Michael Schmidt emerged. It was the 37th day of the hunger strike he started after being convicted of endangering public health by the Court of Appeal for Ontario; he claimed to have lost 50 pounds. But the reporters encountered someone alert, emphatic and entirely undeterred.

Schmidt's hunger strike, which he ended after Premier Dalton McGuinty agreed to meet with him, was the latest chapter in an 18-year legal battle that began in 1994 when local police and health units raided his Durham, Ont., farm. He pleaded guilty to the charges and was forced to sell three quarters of his farm to pay legal fees and fines. Since then, he's been in court numerous times in Ontario and has faced contempt-of-court charges in British Columbia. The issue? Selling unpasteurized milk to willing customers. Schmidt believes pasteurization (heating milk to a microbe-killing temperature) destroys beneficial bacteria, making it less healthy than raw milk.

Schmidt's problem is that every health agency in the country disagrees, insisting that pasteurizing milk is essential for preventing acute illnesses caused by E. coli, listeria and salmonella bacteria. Pasteurization laws were first introduced in Canada in 1991 in response to dozens of major cases of illness linked to raw-milk consumption. According to Health Canada, the number of outbreaks has since plummeted — between 1998 and 2007, only seven were reported. "Given the clear health and safety benefits of pasteurization," says Health Canada spokesperson Christelle Legault, "we aren't considering any changes to the rules."



Canada isn't alone: Australia and Scotland both keep bans on raw milk. In the United States, where raw milk is legally available in many states, the issue is intensely debated. A recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which reviewed dairy-product outbreaks from 1993 to 2006 in all 50 states, found that people were 150 times more likely to become sick from raw milk, and products made from it, than pasteurized milk. "Some people think raw milk has more health benefits," says study co-author Barbara Mahon, a deputy chief at CDC. "But this study shows that raw milk has great risks, especially for children."

Nevertheless, Schmidt is resolute. Eating almost anything, he says, carries some risk of food poisoning (and, indeed, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration estimates that every year an average of 1,600 American citizens become ill with listeriosis from eating deli meat, compared to an average of three cases from unpasteurized milk). Schmidt argues, moreover, that we can't fully predict the consequences of wiping out the naturally occurring bacteria in milk, which have evolved alongside us for thousands of years. Raw milk, for instance, contains the bacterium lactobacillus, which pasteurization destroys. Lactobacillus helps break lactose down into simple sugars that can be easily digested. Given dairy's ubiquity in the average North American diet, it's no surprise lactose intolerance has become a minor crisis — some estimates peg the number of Canadian cases at more than seven million. Sufferers, however, have reported drinking raw milk without problem. "To destroy the ecosystem of bacteria in milk," says Schmidt, "is to tamper with some unknown, essential balance." 

Next: How our relationship with bacteria became
less of a balance and more of a war.


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