Milking Cow

Johne's/Crohn's Disease

The short useful life of a dairy cow results in high cull rates from dairy farms that lead to introduction of animals from other farms to maintain herd size. This movement of animals promotes the spread of diseases such as tuberculosis and Johne's (related to Crohn's).

The following is an article published in the October 2003 issue of the Milkweed discussing the issue of Johne’s disease in dairy cattle and the related impact on human health:

Honestly Address Johne's/Crohn's

Faith in dairy as a valued source of nutritious food is called into question by the recent published report that British medical researchers found the virus that causes Johne's disease in cows in the intestines of 90% of all persons suffering from Crohn's disease. Obviously more research is needed. For example: what percentage of persons who do not suffer from Crohn's disease have that same virus in their intestines?

But in my opinion, the U.S. dairy industry has diddled along for nearly a decade, generally afraid to address the potential Crohn's/Johne's link.

In the US., about 200,000 new cases of Crohn's disease occur annually. That's two million cases in a decade - people suffering painful, progressive gastroenteric distress, weakness and even death. Removal of significant portions of the intestines is a common treatment.

The British report, published in the July 2003 issue of the Journal of Clinical Microbiology found that current pasteurization temperatures were not adequate to kill the Johne's bug. That's troubling.

However at the recent World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wisconsin, I noticed an exhibitor selling pasteurizing equipment for milk fed to calves. Pasteurizing farm milk to feed calves was something I first heard of conducted at Mason Dixon Farms in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. In fact, this exhibitor's equipment is used at Mason Dixon Farms.

The discussion quickly led to reasons why pasteurization for calves' milk was beneficial. The exhibitor cited literature published in 1997 that said a combination of rigorous mixing (turgidity) of raw milk increasing the pasteurization temperature by one degree F° killed off all the Johne's virus organisms. The vigorous mixing action is necessary to break up virus clumps before pasteurization.

If some in dairy will use additional pasteurizing technologies to make calf milk safer, docs not the milk-drinking and cheese-eating American public deserve the same or better?

Whatever percentage of this nation's approximate 200,000 annual new cases of Crohn's disease may be related to Johne's virus-infected milk and meat, that total is too high. Yet for years dairy leadership has done very little to actually increase the safety of our milk and meat supplies.

Late last spring, I received a phone call from a California woman who was suffering from Crohn's disease. She was in her mid or late '30s, and had three sons, ages 10 and under. She had been hospitalized dozens of times due to the Crohn's disease. and doctors were not optimistic about her chances of surviving very long. This woman had carefully and voluminously studied what is known about Crohn's and its possible link to Johne's disease in dairy cows. She drilled me with a question for which I had no good answer: what has the dairy industry done to protect us to stop this from happening? I have never been on the receiving end of greater telephonic outrage. Her husband works in the artificial insemination business and she feared that his exposure to manure on the job had perhaps been related to Johne's attacking her. "What has the dairy industry done?" she repeatedly pleaded to know.

There is debate over what share of crohn's cases may be hereditary, versus environmental. Some time long ago, dairy should have quit hiding behind this debate, funded necessary research, and engaged in actions to reduce and eliminate Johne's disease from our dairy cattle. A nickel per cwt. taken from the national dairy producer and processor promotion check-offs would be a good start toward doing this work.