A federal judge yesterday gave the Department of Health and Human Services 60 days to act on a proposal that it ban the sale of unpasteurized, raw milk, which has been linked by government officials to widespread illness.

"The department's justification for its continued delay is lame at best and irresponsible at worst," U.S. District Court Judge Gerhard A. Gesell said in a written order.

Public Citizen Health Research Group, a consumer organization founded by Ralph Nader, petitioned HHS in April to ban the sale of raw milk, charging that the department had failed to act because of industry pressure. The group sued in September after HHS took no action.

Despite statements by U.S. health officials and scientists linking raw milk to disease, Gesell said, HHS contended that more study was needed because "the issue is controversial and complicated."

"Since its own top health officials are on the record to the contrary, this assertion can be given no credence," Gesell said.

He said the U.S. commissioner of food and drugs, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the assistant secretary of HHS for health had made "unequivocal" statements supporting a ban on the interstate sale of raw milk.

Between 1974 and 1982, Gesell said, the Food and Drug Administration gathered evidence that raw milk was connected to "the outbreak of serious disease." He said the CDC has linked raw milk to two serious bacterial diseases, campylobacteriosis and salmonellosis.

Gesell said the two illnesses "typically produce bloody diarrhea, usually lasting several days but sometimes several months. On rare occasions, these diseases result in death."

The judge said hundreds of cases of serious gastrointestinal infections have been reported since the FDA first proposed a ban on raw-milk sales in 1973. FDA proposed the ban again in 1983 and sent the recommendation to HHS.

The sale of raw milk is banned in 20 states and permitted in 24; six states have some restrictions, according to the judge's order.

Gesell criticized HHS' contention that it needed more time to study such options as warning labels. "Such study has been under way for nearly two years, and still no agency action has been proposed," he said.