We see examples of discrimination in many areas of life, but discrimination against food-borne pathogens? I’m afraid so. We have a campylobacter discrimination problem on our hands. Let me explain: 


One of the more intriguing results of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study of raw milk illness trends highlighted in my previous post was that more than 80% of illnesses were from campylobacter. Campylobacter is at once the most prevalent of the four main pathogens that infect our food, and has the mildest symptoms. Illnesses generally involve an upset stomach for a few days and then are finished. 


Let me quickly add that it’s not me judging campylobacter to be not so terribly threatening. That’s the government passing the judgment by accepting for years, without objection, the fact that much of American chicken is infected with campylobacter (43%, according to a report last year in Consumer Reports(. 


Illnesses from tainted chicken are 15 times more common than illnesses from dairy of all types, including raw dairy, according to the Center for Science and the Public Interest (shown in the graphic above). 


As for E.coli O157:H7, potentially the most dangerous of the four main pathogen that create problems in our food, it was said by the CDC to be responsible for only 17% of the illnesses in the study. Even E.coli O157:H7 isn’t always terribly dangerous, it’s just that 10% or so of cases turn into hemolytic uremic syndrome, which is a very dangerous condition in which the kidneys can shut down, and tends to afflict children. 


My purpose in pointing all this out is to suggest that illnesses from bad food aren’t all the same, in the CDC scheme of things. Of course, no illnesses are desirable. And producers presumably want to avoid passing on pathogens to their customers.  But if you’re going to get sick from food, you’d rather get campylobacter than E.coli O157:H7. (As I pointed out in a comment following my previous post, the CDC issues all kinds of warnings that raw milk can cause serious illnesses from listeria, but the agency didn’t find a single case of listeria in the illnesses it tabulated in the six years between 2007-2012.)


I would argue that if a food’s main threat for creating illness is campylobacter, that isn’t a terribly dangerous threat. Yet the CDC has said that is raw milk’s main threat, more than 80% of the time in the rare event of illness.


I certainly wouldn’t take the position that the CDC (and U.S. Department of Agriculture) take with campylobacter in chicken—just suck it up and accept it as part of the price for giving corporate chicken producers like Tyson Foods, Perdue, and Foster Farms a break. I would want to figure out ways to reduce campylobacter incidence. The same applies to raw milk. 

But the CDC is incapable of taking the same accepting approach to raw milk as it takes to chicken. That is because the agency has a rigid ideological approach to raw milk which can be summed up very simply: ban it. So in the CDC’s politically-driven scheme of things, an illness from campylobacter in raw milk is much more significant than the same illness from chicken. All campylobacter are not created equal.