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19. Bacterium in Cow’s Milk May Cause Crohn’s Disease

Source: CLEVELAND FREE TIMES, June 16-22, 1999, Title: “The Crohn’s Connection?,” Author: Lisa Chamberlain

Faculty Evaluator: Derek Girman, Ph.D.
Student Researchers: Lisa Desmond & Julia O’Connor

Mounting research shows that a bacterium in cow’s milk may cause Crohn’s disease, a debilitating chronic inflam-matory disease of the gastrointestinal tract. Although four studies indicate that the bacterium, mycobacterium paratuberculosis (Mp), is capable of surviving the pasteurization process, two studies say it is not. Consequently, a strong scientific debate has ensued, primarily behind closed doors, while the American public remains unaware of the hidden dangers. Yet despite scientific concern, little funding has been provided to address this issue.

Estimates are that between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people in the U.S. have Crohn’s disease, and that it is spreading rapidly. Approximately 55 Americans, mostly between the ages of 15 and 25, will be diagnosed with this incurable disease every day, and at least half of the Crohn’s patients will require surgery for the removal of inflamed intestine. Crohn’s disease causes severe diarrhea, excessive weight loss, debilitating abdominal pain, rectal bleeding, bowel obstruction, fistulas, and abscesses.

More than a century ago, Heinrich Johne discovered Johne’s disease, a debilitating intestinal disorder in cattle characterized by diarrhea, excessive weight loss, reduced milk production, and ultimately death. The possible connection between infected cow’s milk and Crohn’s disease in humans was suggested as early as 1913. For more than 70 years the bacterium (Mp) that caused Johne’s disease could not be located in human Crohn’s patients, but the similarity between the two diseases and recent research implicating that Mp can resist the pasteurization process is too compelling to ignore. Experts agree that Mp “is excreted directly into the milk of infected cows… and it happens before the animal shows signs of Johne’s disease.”

In a 1981 study, Dr. Rodrick Chiodini, a microbiologist, successfully isolated the same Mp bacterium in six patients with Crohn’s disease. This important discovery has led to significant debates among medical and veterinary researchers and the discovery has not led to well-funded research by the government or the dairy industry.

Without well-funded research, however, there are no definitive answers to these vexing questions, such as: Does Mp cause or contribute to Crohn’s disease in humans? Does Mp survive the pasteurization process? Is it currently in the retail milk supply? Are our children at risk? And if the answer to any of these questions is even possibly “yes,” why isn’t the American public aware that this is indeed a concern?

Dr. John Hermon-Taylor, chairman of the department of surgery at St. George’s Hospital Medical School in London, is conducting research that will test the retail milk supply in Britain. His initial studies revealed that 7 percent of the retail milk contained the DNA thumbprint of Mp. After growing the cultures for up to three and a half years, he determined that “16 percent of the retail milk samples that originally tested negative came up with long-term cultures which tested strongly positive.” The same pasteurization process is used in the United States.

In addition to the strong correlation between the genetic thumbprint for Mp and people with Crohn’s disease, Hermon-Taylor says that when he treats patients with antibiotics known to be effective against mycobacterial infections, between two-thirds and three-quarters of his patients report improvements. Due to Hermon-Taylor’s work, the British government announced that they will spend 18 months testing 1,000 samples of all types of milk for Mp. This news made headlines in Britain but not a word was mentioned in the American press.

Crohn’s disease is only seen in milk drinking areas such as the U.S., Australia, South Africa, Europe, Canada, and New Zealand. It is not seen in India where they boil their milk first. Just as Crohn’s disease is on the rise, so is Johne’s disease in cattle. A 1996 study by the United States Department of Agriculture estimated that 22 percent of U.S. dairies are infected with Johne’s organism and that larger herds are more likely to be infected. The same study also shows that 45 percent of dairy producers are either unaware of Johne’s disease or know little about it despite the fact that the dairy industry is losing $1.5 billion a year due to infected animals.

UPDATE BY AUTHOR LISA CHAMBERLAIN: I first learned about a possible connection between a bacteria in milk and Crohn’s disease while working for a member of Congress, but not from having access to inside information. One of our constituents, whose wife has suffered with the disease for 30 years, had done research on the issue and was asking for our help. Having previously worked in journalism, I understood immediately the implications of this story, and was taking copious notes before he was through.

Using his research as a guide, what I found was that scientists had done serious investigations into the possibility that millions of people worldwide are contracting a debilitating gastrointestinal disease from infected cow’s milk. Despite shoestring budgets, credible research shows the theory is not just viable, but likely. The foremost experts on the microbe and the disease are the people who have shown there is, at a minimum, a possible correlation between a bacterium in milk and Crohn’s disease. Considering that the suspected organism is known to cause a similar disease in cows and is also known to be shed live in their milk, indicates the relationship is causal.

I first worked on the issue in Congress, which consisted of trying to get a Congressional hearing, among other things, all to little avail. Then I tried to convince a producer I know at 60 Minutes to do the story. His response was something to the effect of, “Unless you can prove it, the story will not happen. After the tobacco stuff, they are not taking any chances.”

So upon returning to journalism, I worked on the story myself. It took six more months to conduct the interviews and research, and get over the worst case of writer’s block I have ever had. Once the piece was finished, I joked to a friend, “It is my Pulitzer story, but it will probably end up on the Top Ten Most Censored List.”

Since the story was reported, not a single other American media outlet has touched it, including other papers owned by the same company as mine. (Only Now, Toronto’s weekly paper, published the piece.) Mother Jones passed on a rewrite of the story, too.

And the most disturbing news has only recently been discovered. The bacteria suspected of causing Crohn’s disease has been cultured from the breast milk of two Crohn’s patients. Still, not a word about one of the most far-reaching public health/food safety issues has appeared anywhere else in the media.

For more information, visit Paratuberculosis Awareness and Research Association at

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