Federal health officials have announced a ban on interstate shipments of certified raw milk, effective Sept. 10, as a means of "controlling communicable diseases," namely infections caused by salmonella bacteria.
The ban marks one of the few times that an entire food category has undergone such a restriction, which is normally reserved for harmful additives or adulterants, said Kennon M. Smith, regulatory officer for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety in Washington. The FDA's action is a setback for advocates of non-pasteurized dairy products and Stueve's Natural Inc., a City of Industry-based dairy.
A former division of Alta-Dena Dairies, Stueve's is the nation's only remaining commercial source of certified raw milk, according to an FDA spokesman. A company official sharply criticized the ban, calling it unconstitutional and discriminatory, but maintained that interstate sales of raw milk had been halted for several months.
Raw milk is preferred by consumers who believe that the pasteurization or heating process destroys some nutrients and negatively affects flavor. Certified raw milk is a trade name which indicates extra steps have been taken to ensure cleanliness.
For decades, health officials have maintained that non-pasteurized dairy products may contain harmful bacteria such as salmonella, camphylobacter and other pathogens. These potentially fatal contaminants pose high risks to individuals with compromised immune systems, such as infants, the elderly, cancer patients and those suffering from AIDS.
In the announcement published in the Federal Register on Monday, the FDA concluded that "any form of raw milk in interstate commerce poses a health risk." But the agency stopped short of an outright ban, leaving oversight of intrastate sales to local and state authorities.
"We have the authority to impose an intrastate ban, but are not considering one at this time," Smith said. The agency's involvement, though, may prompt states to halt raw milk sales, as 27 have already done, Kennon said.
California currently permits the sale of raw milk, but regularly monitors the dairy products for contamination.
The federal regulation stems from a December, 1986, U.S. District Court judgment. The court ordered the ban in the aftermath of a suit filed by the Washington-based Public Citizen's Health Research Group that sought a prohibition of raw milk and raw milk products. Public Citizen's Dr. Sidney Wolfe said the ruling was long overdue.
"The FDA did something at the end of the 20th Century that should have been done at the beginning of the century," Wolfe said.
Stueve's Natural produces an estimated 10,000 gallons of raw milk daily--most of which is consumed in Southern California.
Raymond A. Novell, attorney for Stueve's Natural, said the ban was "ludicrous, considering all the salmonella outbreaks that are linked to heated foods."
"You cannot eliminate bacteria from foods, but only maintain safe levels of it," he said. "There is no such thing as a pathogen-free food. The question is whether the levels are harmful."
Novell maintained that there is a heavy demand for raw milk and estimates that more than 100,000 consumers use Stueve's Natural dairy items.
A California health official called the FDA decision "a step in the right direction."
"A warning label (on certified raw milk products) is the very minimum safety precaution that we should now have in the state," said Ronald R. Roberto, chief of the disease control section of the state's Health Services Department.