The recent news of an E. coli outbreak in central Missouri, supposedly tied to raw milk, has gotten us quite annoyed at the way it’s being handled and covered by both the Boone County Health Department and the Columbia Tribune. Given that our goats are now kidding, and we’re just a few weeks away from raw milk being available from our farm, this topic is on our mind. For background on our position on raw milk, read here and here, but the one-sentence version is that we produce and sell limited quantities of raw goat’s milk, but do not drink it raw ourselves and require anyone taking raw milk from this farm to sign an agreement not to consume it raw either; we do this because raw milk is the only way we can legally sell any dairy products without impractically complicated and expensive dairy facilities and licensing requirements. See also the wording about raw milk sales in our CSA information. That being said, we are strong proponents of the personal right of adult Americans to purchase and use raw milk as an ingredient no different than raw meat or raw eggs, both of which also come with health bureaucrat warnings and are risky to handle and consume but are nevertheless legal to
be stupid take risks with if you want to. We especially don’t support feeding raw milk to children, but then again we don’t support exposing children to junk food or tobacco either, and those unsafe activities are legal and unregulated at the individual level. But here’s why we’re annoyed with this story and how it’s being covered:
From Tuesday’s Tribune story:
Alexander said health officials have determined that consumption of raw dairy products was the only common link for possible exposure among the three Boone County victims. She did not disclose the gender of the victims. “Each person was identified as a raw dairy consumer,” Alexander said, “but we can’t say they all got it from the same place.”
If you chose three Boone County families at random, what are the odds that NOTHING in their kitchens over the past week would be the same other than raw dairy products? Are we expected to believe that no basic products like beef, eggs, canned tomatoes, peanut butter, fast food, or anything else were shared by these households? They don’t even have to be the same brand of those products, as the Boone County Health Department (BCHD) clearly states that the suspect raw dairy products may not be from the same place either. I’d like to see the investigative report that documents BCHD officials’ careful efforts to pick through and identify the entire contents of a week of these families’ garbage, and dining-out receipts, to confirm that no other”common” links as loosely defined as raw dairy products (not from the same source!) existed. Keep in mind, for example, that the E. coli outbreak last fall in St. Louis was ultimately traced to a grocery store salad bar, if I recall correctly, something that wouldn’t show up in a short audit of a household kitchen.
Second, note that they’re not even claiming “raw milk”, just “raw dairy products”. Did one of these families have, say, aged raw cheese from Ireland in their fridge? Why use the euphemism “dairy products” if locally-produced raw milk was found in all three households (you’d think that would be obvious)? And if that wasn’t the case, why the immediate focus on the tenuous relationship between various sources and types of raw dairy products? Maybe there are better answers out there, but they’re not in the BCHD’s statements and they’re not in the Tribune’s reporting, which is quickly being picked up and copied beyond the local area. Someone’s not doing a good job here.
Now, from Wednesday’s Tribune story:
Raw dairy products are cited as a “possible risk factor” in two more cases of a strain of E. coli that has now sickened seven people in Central Missouri…State health officials reported yesterday that the same strain of E. coli bacteria has been confirmed in infections in Boone, Howard, Cooper and Camden counties.
In one day, it’s been downgraded from “only common risk factor” to “possible risk factor”. In fact,
State and county health officials haven’t positively identified the source of the E. coli outbreak….Terlizzi did not say whether other possible sources of contamination were being investigated.
This is exactly the concern we’ve written about before. Public health officials and regulators are so paranoid about raw milk, they’ll jump to conclusions every time before doing a proper study of the situation. Already, this story is spreading beyond the area (such as here and here)” when the actual meaning of the Health Department’s statements is that they have no clue yet what caused these sicknesses. The presence of raw milk does not, ipso facto, mean any E. coli present came from the milk in question. And notice that the more careful wording appears once state officials, rather than local, get involved.
That being said, the culprit in this case may very well have been raw milk. It’s a risky product to produce and consume and does generate a disproportionate percentage of milk-related illnesses. But due diligence in such an investigation says you do your homework first before spreading unfounded rumors. Imagine if the same treatment had been given to a more corporate product like, say, ground beef or peanut butter. If officials had come out right away and said “beef is the only common link between these households” with no proof, and then backed off a day later, the Beef Industry would be, well, having a cow. Yet many health regulators are so focused on raw milk as the only/primary threat in the food system that they’ll smear it every chance they get, and will assume its guilt if present while dropping investigation into all other possibilities until it’s too late (again, I’d like to see the results of the BCHD garbage-picking efforts, if they even happened). And unlike most food products, raw milk is primarily sourced from small, independent family farms that have no equivalent lobby group or collective ability to counteract the bully pulpit of powerful agencies with agendas of their own (the word bully in this case carrying a very different meaning than Teddy Roosevelt intended).
The last part of Wednesday’s Tribune article also contains a very significant error. It states that:
Christine Tew, spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Agriculture, said in jurisdictions where the sale of raw milk or cream is allowed, producers must first apply to the State Milk Board for a permit. The permit requires compliance with bottling, capping and labeling regulations. Tew said the only permitted facility in Missouri is located in Galena.
There is a big word missing here: RETAIL. The above paragraph only applies to RETAIL sales of raw milk, i.e. at a farmers market or grocery. None of the above is true of direct-to-consumer raw milk sales in Missouri; read the actual wording of the law here. As written, this paragraph is very misleading because it implies that all other sellers of raw milk are supposed to comply with the above rules, which is not true, and thus implies that anyone not doing so is somehow shady or black-market, also not true.
Finally, a story to demonstrate how virulently anti-raw-milk the BCHD is, and why this colors the way they handle an investigation like this. A few years ago, when I was still on a farmers market board, a raw-milk dairy applied to sell at the market. This dairy was certified by the Missouri State Milk Board (no friend to raw milk, either) as a Grade-A retail dairy for raw milk, meaning the state had determined that they passed all tests and standards necessary for the sale of bottled raw milk (as far as I know, this is still true). Thus they were allowed to sell at farmers markets or any other retail outlet by state law, and so applied here as the biggest market in the region. The board took that into consideration and voted to approve the application, reasoning that the state was endorsing the safety of the product and the certification of the State Milk Board was sufficient proof of that. When the BCHD found out about that, they immediately contacted the market and threatened legal action if the market allowed this dairy to sell, stating something like “no raw milk will be sold in Columbia under our watch” (my paraphrase of a memory). The market, not interested in a legal battle with the unlimited resources of a government agency, backed down and rescinded permission to the dairy; for the same reasons the story never made the broader light of day, though many market vendors beyond the board knew about it and I’m not relating anything confidential. My personal stance as a board member was to fight back publicly, but the consensus (probably rightly) was that the market couldn’t afford to pick an expensive fight with an agency that held so much power over it, and so the experience was buried. Now that years have passed, this is a good time to tell the story given its ramifications for understanding the current situation.
Thus a local bureaucrat with little actual dairy experience thwarted the will of both State Regulators and local consumers (lots of raw milk sales and deliveries happen in Columbia, regardless or perhaps because of the BCHD’s claims to know nothing about it). I’ve been told by multiple long-time residents and farmers that a similar fight happened many years ago about fresh egg sales at market, which the BCHD ultimately lost, but which colored memories some of the market’s membership who wished to avoid a repeat of that ugly fight. But it clarifies the stance and tactics of an agency with a very clear agenda.
Now, we would not be surprised to learn that raw milk is, in fact, responsible for this particular outbreak (or to learn that it’s not). What’s important is the lack of context; we rarely see such a hatchet job done on any other food product suspected of illness, and we rarely see such intense coverage of any other individual source of illness or death. If the same breathless coverage and intensive government effort was applied to, say, individual diabetes deaths and the ultimate nutritional source of that scourge, we might see a very different food system. “Five local youths condemned to life on insulin, illness linked to (insert soda brand here)”. But good luck getting the “Health” department to combat junk food with the same energy as raw milk, despite the relative long-term public health results of each.