Reservoirs of antimicrobial resistance genes in retail raw milk

It has been estimated that at least 3% of the USA population consumes unpasteurized (raw) milk from animal sources, and the demand to legalize raw milk sales continues to increase. However, consumption of raw milk can cause foodborne illness and be a source of bacteria containing transferrable antimicrobial resistance genes (ARGs). To obtain a comprehensive understanding of the microbiome and antibiotic resistome in both raw and processed milk, we systematically analyzed 2034 retail milk samples including unpasteurized milk and pasteurized milk via vat pasteurization, high-temperature-short-time pasteurization, and ultra-pasteurization from the United States using complementary culture-based, 16S rRNA gene, and metagenomic sequencing techniques.

Raw milk samples had the highest prevalence of viable bacteria which were measured as all aerobic bacteria, coliform, and Escherichia coli counts, and their microbiota was distinct from other types of milk. 16S rRNA gene sequencing revealed that Pseudomonadaceae dominated raw milk with limited levels of lactic acid bacteria. Among all milk samples, the microbiota remained stable with constant bacterial populations when stored at 4 °C. In contrast, storage at room temperature dramatically enriched the bacterial populations present in raw milk samples and, in parallel, significantly increased the richness and abundance of ARGs. Metagenomic sequencing indicated raw milk possessed dramatically more ARGs than pasteurized milk, and a conjugation assay documented the active transfer of blaCMY-2, one ceftazidime resistance gene present in raw milk-borne E. coli, across bacterial species. The room temperature-enriched resistome differed in raw milk from distinct geographic locations, a difference likely associated with regionally distinct milk microbiota.

Despite advertised “probiotic” effects, our results indicate that raw milk microbiota has minimal lactic acid bacteria. In addition, retail raw milk serves as a reservoir of ARGs, populations of which are readily amplified by spontaneous fermentation. There is an increased need to understand potential food safety risks from improper transportation and storage of raw milk with regard to ARGs.