Deaths in U.S. caused by New York listeria-tainted artisanal raw milk cheese

The growing popularity of unpasteurized milk in the United States has raised public health concerns.

A 2017 report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that raw milk and cheese products account for 96% of foodborne illnesses linked to contaminated dairy products and outbreaks linked to the consumption of cow’s milk and cheese were estimated to cause on average 761 illnesses and 22 hospitalizations per year in the United States.

Listeria monocytogenes is a health risk often connected to unpasteurized dairy products. It can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, pregnant women and the elderly.

As consumption of unpasteurized dairy products grows, illnesses will increase steadily; a doubling in the consumption of unpasteurized milk or cheese could increase outbreak-related illnesses. Proponents of raw milk consumption rave about its positive health effects, pointing out that leafy green vegetables actually cause more foodborne illnesses than dairy products.

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Deaths in U.S. caused by listeria-tainted artisanal raw milk cheese

However, in March 2017, two people died following an outbreak of listeria linked to a popular artisanal raw milk cheese made in upstate New York.  The deaths occurred in Vermont and Connecticut. Four other people in New York and Florida reported feeling sick after eating Ouleout, the artisanal cheese, which is produced by New York-based Vulto Creamery in Walton.

The deaths highlighted concerns over safety regulations around artisanal cheese production in the United States, particularly around the raw-milk cheese segment, which re-emerged only about a decade ago, experts say. The outbreak has also revived a continuing debate between the virtues of raw-milk cheese, which aficionados say tastes better, and safety. Some customers swear only by pasteurized-milk cheese.

2014 saw its fair share of raw milk health scares:

In Idaho last summer, the CDC reported that 11 individuals fell ill with cryptosporidiosis originating from raw goat’s milk contaminated with feces. [1]

In early 2015, the Pennsylvania Agricultural Department put a stop to raw milk sales at a rural creamery after test samples came back positive for Campylobacter. At the time, the state’s health department had not reported any illnesses associated with raw milk purchased from the creamery. [2]

Just this spring, three children under age 5 were sickened with campylobacteriosis after consuming raw goat’s milk from Claravale Farm of San Benito County, CA. One of the children was hospitalized, but all were expected to recover from the foodborne illness. [3]

Infographic: Raw Milk and Food Safety

Source: CDC – Raw Milk and Food Safety

Proponents of raw milk and milk products

Raw milk is milk that has not been pasteurized. Milk is an excellent medium for microbial growth, and when stored at ambient temperature bacteria and other pathogens soon proliferate.

Ouleout cheese has been celebrated across the United States as much for its unusual back story as for its flavor: It was created by Jos Vulto, a Dutch artist linked to the Museum of Modern Art, who started making cheese in his apartment and aging it under a sidewalk in Brooklyn.

Europeans have also eaten raw-milk cheese for hundreds of years. In France, for example, 15 percent of its cheese is made of unpasteurized milk, according to French agricultural statistics. The thinking is that when milk is cooked, or pasteurized, many of the flavor-rich enzymes are destroyed.

Raw vs. Pasteurized Milk

Those favoring the consumption of raw milk believe that raw milk and associated products are healthier and taste better. Those favoring the consumption of pasteurized milk consider the pathogen risk associated with drinking raw milk unacceptable.


The CDC official study–Outbreak-Related Disease Burden Associated with Consumption of Unpasteurized Cow’s Milk and Cheese, United States, 2009–2014–can be found in the June 2017 issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, a CDC publication.