Posts Tagged ‘risk’

Following on from my post – Experts & Expertise – continued I wanted to post on an article I read early in my research on the ‘raw’ milk debate / controversy. The article, Those Pathogens, What You Should Know was written by Ted Beals, MD and is on the pro-‘raw’ milk advocacy website http://www.realmilk.com. It is an interesting example of information presented by individuals that could be perceived to be experts interlaced with personal and biased opinion. The article discusses food-borne pathogenic bacteria (with some poorly written and erroneous scientific information. e.g. the statement ‘Campylobacter jejuni grows only inside living animal cells’ is incorrect. C. jejuni can multiply outside living cells – I studied Campylobacter for my Masters research, but I am not proclaiming to be an expert or know everything there is to know about Campylobacter), an analysis of risk (inducting conducting his own calculations and analysis of statistics) and commentary on the perpetration of myths and failings of government agencies in relation to bacterial and epidemiological knowledge and analysis. A list of references is included at the end of the article, however there is no in text referencing so a reader does not know the sources of the information quoted. The most interesting part of the article is the biography of the author –

“Ted Beals, MS, MD, is a physician and board certified pathologist, who served on the faculty of University of Michigan Medical School. He is now retired after 31 years of clinical and administrative service in the Veterans Health Administration. A pathologist with personal interest in dairy testing and safety of milk, he has been presenting testimony on dairy safety in North America for the last several years. Ted and his wife Peggy, as cow shareholders, have enhanced their diet with over 600 gallons of their own fresh unprocessed milk.”

Based on the information in the biography, the author does not appear to be either an expert in epidemiology, statistics or bacteriology. The author however, has a personal interest in dairy testing and safety, consumes ‘raw’ milk and has testified on food safety.

The article, although presenting scientific information, also contains personal opinion, bias and a clear pr0-‘raw’ milk message. Is this article, written by someone who could be perceived as an ‘expert’ or someone qualified to comment on scientific information (due to being a medical doctor), presented as ‘scientific’ justification for discrediting government information about consuming ‘raw’ milk, risks involved and encouragement to consume ‘raw’ milk? Are the medical qualifications of the author being used to add gravitas and plausibility to pro-‘raw’ milk arguments?

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While researching public health publications on ‘raw’ milk and scientific information on ‘raw’ milk, I found a very interesting report published by Food Standards Australian New Zealand (FSANZ) in 2009 on the Microbiological Risk Assessment of Raw Cow Milk. In this report the authors undertook a quantitative microbiological risk assessment of ‘raw’ cow milk in Australia. According to FSANZ the consumption of raw cow milk ‘appears to be low among the general population, but in specific groups large amounts are consumed’ and it is in these groups that the belief that ‘raw milk possesses particular health properties or attributes, above the existing nutritional components” is prevalent.

FSANZ, 2009 states that for raw cow milk, the probability of illness after retail purchase is less than one case of campylobacteriosis (an infection caused by Campylobacter species), 97 cases of infection by Enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) and 153 cases of salmonellosis (an infection caused by Salmonella species) in the general population for children per 100,000 serves of a mean daily intake of 540ml of milk to a child. I am not an expert in risk (not very familiar with it in terms of microbiological infection risk) and am not qualified to interpret whether this is high, moderate or low.

However, by my reading of the Queensland Health Raw Milk fact sheet and the Biosecurity SA webpage – Information in response to questions about raw cow’s milk, consuming raw milk puts people at increased risk of infection by enteric pathogens and presents too high a risk to consider changing the current processing requirements in the Food Standards Code. But in the FSANZ report it fails to explain this risk. An interesting question is then ‘how is this communicated to the public?’ Is it communicated in a way a lay public can understand. In the case of the Queensland Health fact sheet, ‘increased risk’ is simply stated without figures or information on relative risk to individuals. Reporting risks in a way that lay people can understand is an important component of effective risk communication. Perhaps it is failing in the communication of risk that allowed for the formation of a debate and controversy surrounding ‘raw’ milk.


Biosecurity SA (2013). Information in response to questions about raw cow’s milk. Retrieved 15/10/14 from http://www.pir.sa..au/biosecuritysa/foodsafety/dairy/raw_milk_products_-_qa

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (2009). Microbiological Risk Assessment of Raw Cow Milk. Retrieved 15/10/14 from http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/code/proposals/documents/P1007%20PPPS%20for%20raw%20milk%201AR%20SD1%20Cow%20milk%20Risk%20Assessment.pdf

Queensland Health (2014). Food Safety Fact Sheet 52 – Raw Milk. Retrieved 15/10/14 from http://www.health.qld.gov.au/foodsafety/documents/fs-52-rawmilk.pdf 

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Following on from my post Understanding the Risks, I have been contemplating the tone in which the CDC’s ‘Features’ webpage on ‘raw’ milk – CDC Features – Raw (Unpasteurized) Milk is worded. I’m wondering if the message communicated on this and other sub-pages overemphasises the risks associated with consuming ‘raw’ milk and perhaps heightens fear? Could the simple lay language used and the strong message of discouraging people to consume ‘raw’ milk be contributing to the controversy? Could readers want an unbiased opinion? Do they then, while ‘googling’ ‘raw’ milk, stumble upon the webpages of ‘raw’ milk advocates (i.e. Raw-Milk-Facts.com – Not All Raw Milk Is The Same! & Raw Dairy: A Deliciously Controversial Beverage) and the overtly positive messages about the safety of ‘raw’ milk and the supposed health benefits it provides, and, the biased analysis of public health agency recommendations. Does this give rise to a polarisation of opinions (and consumption) of ‘raw’ milk?

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Is communication of the risks associated with consuming ‘raw’ milk  (and likelihood of contracting a food-borne illness) a key factor in the debate around ‘raw’ milk? Epidemiological surveillance of outbreak associated and non-outbreak associated food-borne illness rates and the calculated risks involved in consuming ‘raw’ milk, along with simple facts that ‘raw’ milk can contain pathogenic bacteria are used to discourage citizens from consuming ‘raw’ milk. Communication from government and public health agencies state clearly (and in lay language) that ‘raw’ milk is dangerous and tells citizens not to consume it. ‘Raw’ milk advocates put forward arguments disputing epidemiological figures and a perception that government agencies are exaggerating the risks of consuming ‘raw’ milk. Two clear ‘sides’ does not make it easier for consumers when choosing to consume ‘raw’ milk.

Contemplating effective risk communication, should public health agencies be communicating clearly the relative risks to individuals of consuming ‘raw’ milk? This being the risk an individual citizen has of contracting a food-borne infection from consuming ‘raw’ milk. Communicated in a way that an average member of the public can understand (percentages, ratios).

If risks are communicated in terms that the average person can understand this could arm citizens with enough information to make their own choice. And such information could assist those consumers who are already consuming or thinking of purchasing and consuming ‘raw’ milk. There are people out there consuming ‘raw’ milk and shouldn’t these consumers feel more informed about the choices they make?

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I am wondering if some of the issues that have arisen in the ‘raw’ milk debate / controversy revolve around voluntary and involuntary risks? That is – consumers chose to consume ‘raw’ milk knowing the risk versus consumers not being given a choice or not informed of the risks involved.

I think voluntary risk is a key component. It seems ‘raw’ milk consumers choose to consume ‘raw’ milk knowing the risks involved. Are they well informed? Do they know the risks? Are advocacy groups communicating false or misleading messages about the safety of ‘raw’ milk? Do consumers really know the risks when they drink that glass of ‘raw’ milk or eat that piece of cheese that was made with ‘raw’ milk?

In the context of the ‘raw’ milk debate, are the misleading and false messages about the safety of ‘raw’ milk put forth by ‘raw’ milk advocates, persuading consumers to consume ‘raw’ milk? Are these consumers then involuntarily exposed to food-borne pathogens when consuming ‘raw’ milk? Do they assume it is safe?

What if public health agencies gave clear cut information about the risks involved? What if these agencies communicated this message in a way that members of the public could understand? Consumers, sufficiently informed and be able to weigh up the risks, could choose whether or not to consume ‘raw’ milk? What if these agencies clearly stated the relative risk, that is the risk posed to an individual from drinking ‘raw’ milk?

Would you be more inclined to consume ‘ raw’ milk or any products made from ‘raw’ milk, knowing the relative risk of contracting a food-borne illness?

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With my readings and research on the ‘raw’ milk controversy / debate, a few key elements keep coming to the forefront of my mind –

  • Governments and public health agencies, in most of their communications about ‘raw’ (unpasteurised) milk, discuss ‘raw’ milk as a source of disease causing bacteria and tell readers not to consume ‘raw’ milk or products made with ‘raw’ milk
  • Governments, public health agencies, epidemiologists and scientists present epidemiological data of food-borne illness caused by the consumption of ‘raw’ milk as evidence of the risk involved in consuming ‘raw’ milk
  • Governments, public health agencies use descriptions of food-borne illness symptoms and stories of severe complications and even death to highlight the dangers of consuming ‘raw’ milk and to dissuade people from consuming it
  • Government and public health communications also dispute the health benefit claims of ‘raw’ milk advocates
  • ‘Raw’ milk advocates regularly discuss the safety of ‘raw’ milk and make claims about the health benefits it can offer (such as ‘curing’ asthma, allergies and lactose intolerance) using testimonial and anecdotal accounts
  • ‘Raw’ milk advocates dispute the information provided by governments, public health agencies and scientists regarding the risks of consuming ‘raw’ milk and food-illness infection rates
  • ‘Raw’ milk advocates bring political issues (legal control over the sale of ‘raw’ milk, perceived government control over what citizens can consume etc) into the debate over the sale and consumption of ‘raw’ milk
  • ‘Raw’ milk advocates provide testimonial and anecdotal accounts, along with reassurances over the cleanliness of farming and milking processes as a means of convincing people that ‘raw’ milk is safe
  • ‘Raw’ milk advocates use scientists and medical doctors who are not necessarily experts in food-borne illness, infectious disease and bacteriology or have clear conflicts of interests (are ‘raw’ milk drinkers or producers) to lend credibility to their side of the argument
  • I would like to explore these points in more detail in up coming posts. I am especially intrigued by the use of scientists and doctors to lend credibility to the pro-‘raw’ milk side / faction.

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In my previous post (Risk Communication and the ‘Raw’ Milk Controversy – Viewpoints) I discussed briefly what happens when risk communication fails – risk information vacuums are created. According to Powell and Leiss, 2004, who analysed risk communication and its failures, these risk information vacuums can be filled by other sources. These include –

  • Fears and concerns that form a substantial consensus in the public opinion arena
  • Interest groups peddling their own information and perspectives on the risk issues
  • Media reports that form the public framing of risks
  • Soothing and placating words from politicians

Has there been risk communication failures in the ‘raw’ milk controversy? From my research on the topic, I think there has been some failings from both the expert (scientific, public health and medical) and general public sides. These could include –

  • Experts expecting the public to understand epidemiological statistics and research reports on food-borne illness infection linked to ‘raw’ milk consumption
  • Experts expecting the public to understand the inherent risks involved in consuming ‘raw’ milk
  • Experts failing to understand that individuals what to make the choice of consuming ‘raw’ milk themselves (i.e. In relation to legal and legislative restrictions around the sale of ‘raw’ milk)
  • The public expects experts to give them the facts and allow them to make their own informed decisions about whether to consume ‘raw’ milk or not
  • Experts can been seen as condescending and treat the public as ignorant
  • The public feel they lack a say in the ‘raw’ milk debate
  • The public distrusts government and industry experts who they believe will not give them all the facts
  • Key Failure – both sides do not listen nor value the input from the other side.

I do however agree that the side of the experts (with scientific, public health and medical knowledge) should not consider anecdotal and testimonial accounts presented by ‘raw’ milk advocates to be of equal standing. Rigorous scientific research needs to be conducted to verify these claims. In this context I can see why experts do not accept the public’s information and viewpoint.

Coming back to what fills the risk information vacuums caused by failures in risk communication. The following appears to play a role in filling the vacuum/s in relation to the ‘raw’ milk controversy –

  • Public fears over food-borne illness
  • Public concerns over the safety of food
  • Sensationalised media reports, government websites and individual testimonies on the perils of consuming ‘raw’ milk, including personal stories of illness and the human toll of consuming ‘raw’ milk
  • ‘Raw’ milk advocacy groups providing advice to consumers about the safety of ‘raw’ milk
  • ‘Raw’ milk advocacy groups peddling conspiracy theory ideas about government control over food and what people can choose to eat
  • ‘Raw’ milk advocacy groups lobbying for producers of ‘raw’ milk

There is likely to be many more elements that fill the rusk information vacuum in relation to the ‘raw’ milk controversy. As I discover these, I will discuss them.

Powell, D. & Leiss, W. (2004). Mad Cows and Mother’s Milk (2nd edition). McGill-Queen’s University Press. Quebec City, Canada


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In my previous post entitled Risk Communication – An Introduction, I introduced some of the key concepts involved in risk communication. I plan to apply these concepts to the ‘raw’ milk controversy / debate.

The first key concept that helped frame in my mind the various elements at play in this controversy was that of there being two risk assessment viewpoints. According to Powell and Leiss, 2004 in their book entitled ‘Mad Cows and Mother’s Milk’, the two viewpoints are –

  • Expert – comprised of scientific and technical knowledge, including quantitative information
  • Public – uses ordinary language, in context with individual experiences and includes qualitative information

In my analysis of the ‘raw’ milk controversy so far, there is clearly a distinction between the expert viewpoint and that of individual citizens and the collective general public. In this controversy, experts (governments, public health officials, epidemiologists, policy and law makers, industry, and regulatory bodies) clearly state their view on the consumption of ‘raw’ milk and the risks involved in consuming ‘raw’ milk. These experts communicate the risk of contracting a food-borne illness from ‘raw’ milk along with the symptoms and complications of these food-borne illnesses, explain why the process of pasteurisation is important, and advise the general public not to consume ‘raw’ milk. Epidemiological, public health and medical studies and data inform the experts’ message they communicate to the general public.

The general public viewpoint of risk is communicated in ordinary / lay language and is in context with the experiences of individual members of the public. In contrast to the expert viewpoint, the viewpoint of the general public in the ‘raw’ milk controversy appears to be less concerned with statistics and ‘expert’ advice, and more focused on the individual experiences of consumers, farmers, food producers and ‘raw’ milk advocates.

In my reading of Powell and Leiss, expectations from both sides (i.e. the experts and the general public), the general public’s perception of the arrogance and condescension of experts, and, the general public’s distrust of experts, creates tension and barriers between the two sides. This obviously creates a polarised and fuelled debate with very different viewpoints and beliefs. In these situations good risk communication can break down these barriers and facilitate productive exchanges between the two sides (Powell and Leiss, 2004). But what happens if good risk communication doesn’t occur?

Powell and Leiss, 2004 states that the failure to implement a good risk communication practise gives rise to a risk information vacuum with a myriad of negative consequences. I will explore these consequences in the context of the ‘raw’ milk controversy in my next post.


Powell, D. & Leiss, W. (2004). Mad Cows and Mother’s Milk (2nd edition). McGill-Queen’s University Press. Quebec City, Canada

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Following on from my post entitled, Risk and the ‘Raw’ Milk Controversy, I am hoping to explore (in a number of posts) risk communication, the various elements at play, and risk communication failures involved in this controversy.

This week, my science communication class had to read selected chapters from ‘Mad Cows and Mother’s Milk’ by Douglas Powell and William Leiss. The book examines the role of risk communication in dealing with public controversies. I will use some of the key concepts from this book to explain risk communication and frame it within the ‘raw’ milk controversy / debate.

Powell and Leiss, 2004 define risk as the probability of harm in any given situation and the probability is determined by – i) nature of the hazard, and, ii) extent of an individual’s exposure to the hazard. Essentially, hazards and exposures = overall risk (Powell and Leiss, 2004).

Risk communication is the process of exchanges about how best to assess and manage risk among academics, regulatory practitioners, interest groups and the general public (Powell and Leiss, 2004). Put simply, communication about how to assess and manage risks between a variety of stakeholders.

According to Powell and Leiss, 2004 there are two key standpoints / risk assessment viewpoints when risks are discussed –

  • Expert – scientific and technical knowledge, including quantitative information
  • Public – uses ordinary language, in context with individual experiences and includes qualitative information

Both sides hold expectations of the other. Experts expect the public to understand scientific information and the complexity of the issue. The public expects experts to understand individual effects and want certainty in expert knowledge (Powell and Leiss, 2004).

Good risk communication sits between the expert and public assessment of risk and breaks down barriers to dialogue and cooperation. Failure to implement good risk communication practises lead to the creation of a risk information vacuum where fear, conflicting interpretations of information and poor or little information abounds. It is in this space that –

  • Media reports form the public framing of risks
  • Interest groups fill the vacuum with its own information and perspectives
  • Fears and concerns grow and spread and become a substantial consensus in public opinion (Powell and Leiss, 2004)

With these key concepts defined, I can now discuss risk communication and its failures in the ‘raw’ milk controversy / debate.

Stay tuned!


Powell, D. & Leiss, W. (2004). Mad Cows and Mother’s Milk (2nd edition). McGill-Queen’s University Press. Quebec City, Canada


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This week in my science communication class we looked at risk, risk communication and its role in scientific controversies. Risk is a major element in the debate and controversy around the sale and consumption of ‘raw’ milk. The risk of contracting a food-borne illness is a key argument against the consumption of ‘raw’ milk. But what are the other components of risk and the communication of risk that play a part in this controversy? I will be exploring this in subsequent posts.

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