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Thursday, 6 December, 2001, 09:09 GMT
Milk shake-up to beat Crohn's bug
Milk may have to be pasteurised for longer periods
Changes to the way milk is processed on farms are likely in an effort to destroy bacteria linked to bowel disease in humans.

Milk may have to be heat-treated for longer, and hygiene on dairy farms improved, the BBC has learned.

The moves come as evidence mounts that more people in the UK are developing disabling Crohn's disease.

Based on one study of GP records, as many as one in 690 people may be suffering from the chronic illness, which causes abdominal pain, diarrhoea and fatigue.

The cause of the disease has not been precisely identified, but many scientists believe that exposure to a bacterium called Mycobacterium paratuberculosis (MAP) may play some role, even if it is not the only factor.

MAP can be found in milk, and tests have revealed that it can survive current pasteurisation procedures, which heats milk to more than 70C for at least 15 seconds.

More heat

Now the recommendation from the Food Standards Agency may be to increase pasteurisation time by another 10 seconds to give the high temperature more opportunity to overcome MAP bacteria.

They may also call for improved hygiene on dairy farms to cut the risk of transmission.

There is no guarantee that reducing human exposure to MAP will cut the number of Crohn's cases - many scientists believe that other genetic and environmental factors share the blame for the illness.

MAP is from the same family of bacteria which cause TB, although it cannot cause that illness.

Insufficient evidence

Scientists are suspicious because In sheep and cattle it causes a similar, chronic infection of the gut called Johne's disease.

They think that the bug may damage the bowel in a normal person, creating the opportunity for Crohn's to develop in someone who is already susceptible genetically.

However, the bacteria is rarely found in samples taken from Crohn's disease sufferers, although one London-based research project says it has isolated it.

John Hermon-Taylor, Professor of Surgery at St George's Hospital said: "Research in our own labs has shown unequivocally that MAP is present in the inflamed gut of the overwhelming majority of people with Crohn's Disease and rarely in people without showing signs of the disease.

He said that it was almost certain that MAP was responsible for Crohn's, and that medication to wipe out MAP could cure the disease.

Eileen Rubery, the expert called in to write a report on the issue, which was published in June, concluded that there was still "insufficient evidence" to prove a link at present.

However, the government is committed to taking a "precautionary approach" - if any possibility of a link exists, then action should be taken to reduce the risk.

See also:

02 Apr 00 | Health
Bacteria survives milk processing
21 Apr 99 | Medical notes
Crohn's Disease
21 May 01 | Health
Crohn's gene uncovered
14 Oct 01 | Health
Drug 'could reactivate TB'
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