E. coli and raw milk paranoia in central Missouri

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.

6 thoughts on “E. coli and raw milk paranoia in central Missouri

  1. Pingback: Raw milk controversy | CoMo Whine and Dine

  2. while i respect your decision to not drink raw milk, i am a little offended that you imply people who do so are “stupid”. come on! is everyone who grills their steak medium rare or likes their eggs over easy also stupid?

    also you might consider that just because there are more “outbreaks” of raw milk illnesses, the number of people affected is actually overwhelmingly by pastuerized milk products. a outbreak can be 1 or 5 people or it could be dozens, or hundreds, or thousands. there are also NO deaths associated with raw milk in at least the last 30 years, yet 3 with pastuerized milk just recently in 2008.
    in a typical year, the CDC may have well over 20,000 reports of food poisoning, and in a typical year raw milk or raw milk products will account for approximately 100 (more or less) illnesses. that is less than one half of one percent. and anywhere from 3% to 5% (possibly more, of course data on this is probably underreported) of americans consume raw milk, so you can see this number is further disproportionate. yet people have the idea that drinking raw milk is like russian roulette with a loaded gun, or it is just beyond the pale. of course i agree there are risks, and i def want to see those risks minimized or eliminated. but is it any more risky than eating any other food in the standard american diet, especially food that has traveled god knows how far and had god knows what done to it or put in it? statistically, it just does NOT add up.

    if you are interested in learning more about the nutritional virtues of raw milk, you can check out the weston a price foundation- WAPF, online or here at a local chapter meeting. maybe you already have read into that.

    i also want to say that i think parents have the right to feed their children raw milk if they so chose, as statistically it is not more “risky” than many other foods and has numerous nutritional aspects.

    my family (we live in columbia) enjoys raw milk, and i am proud to serve it to them. of course this incident has had me seriously questioning that choice. i just remind myself that despite the onslaught of misinformation and general unpopularity of raw milk, it is actually statistically not all that risky. a few months back one of my friends and her barely 2 year old son were violently ill for 2 days from certified organic cherries from a local health food store, that she had rinsed clean. but does that make her a careless mother? was it risky for her to eat that? food poisoning can happen from almost anything, even things that seem safe. things that maybe aren’t any more safe than raw milk.
    all of the raw milk samples connected to this case, both those tested by the HD and by the farmer in question (to a private firm), came back NEGATIVE for the particular strain of e coli. of course, we are still wondering if that exonerated the raw milk. you would think more people would be sick as close to 2000 drink this milk. i sort of wonder if there was contamination even on the outsides of the bottles, from muddy boots or a muddy bumper, i am just trying to imagine how this happened. it is so sad and unsettling.

    i really appreciate you bringing a fresh perspective view on this case and really taking the time to examine the variables. so many of the media has instantly jumped on raw milk, it seems unfair without facts to substantiate it. as a customer of raw milk, i may be a little more in the loop on some details of this case, but def not all. i am following it closely. perhaps raw milk is the culprit, but i would like to see more facts to back that up before the media goes all gang busters about it.

    i pray for those sickened as well as their families.

  3. Lizi,

    We don’t have time to respond more fully to your concerns, though I appreciate your sharing. I accept your critique of the “be stupid” line and have changed it to “take risks with”.

    I’m going to stay out of the pro/con argument on the benefits of raw milk, but this story clearly demonstrates one of the main reasons we don’t handle or recommend it to others; the liability risk for our farm of being tarred by association in a situation like this. The possible health benefits to our customers just aren’t worth it to us as a full-time family farm with everything to lose and little to gain from allowing consumption of raw milk from our farm.

    Finally, I agree that another angle rarely questioned or reported is the in-home handling of food products and what impacts that has on food safety issues. A topic for another time.

  4. This is an issue of public health vs. private choice. Safeguarding public health always will inhibit private choice – whether we do it by mandatory vaccination for school children (smallpox, polio, pertussis, etc.), FDA approval for new drugs (thalidomide), health insurance (no they don’t pay for everything you might want them to), not feeding beef products to cattle (mad cow), safe cooking practices (typhoid Mary), public sewer systems (cholera), seatbelt laws, anti-drunk driving laws, and the list can go on virtually forever. Because we can’t test for every hazard in real time (nor would we want to) we have to make statistical judgements.

    And yes, safety will always seem to be over-reacting, because we don’t always suffer the individual consequences of unsafe behavior, and we aren’t very well equipped to reason statistically. Raw milk does present a hazard – the presence of microbes that most people won’t notice, but will be much more likely to make some (the old, young, or immunocompromised) very ill and will cause illness in previously healthy people.

    The question is one of cost and benefit. How many *preventable* illnesses/deaths are we willing to accept in the service of “individual choice” on this or any issue? The fact that at least two of the victims are infants changes the equation significantly IMHO.

  5. you are certainly entitled to your opinions, and to think that providing a very healthy product to those who really want it and benefit from it is “everything to lose and very little to gain”. i am forever grateful to my milk man for providing my family with what i believe is an extremely healthful source of nutrients, putting himself and his livelihood on the line because of his shared belief that raw dairy from grass fed animals is a health food with many benefits. from what i have gathered, most of us customers feel whole-heartedly the same way. i think he is a rebel, yes, but really a brave and generous man to provide this food to us- what many of us call “liquid gold”- even though he does have every “thing” to lose. but in my mind what he has gained, and shared with us, is the spirit of helping and providing for your brothers and sisters, even when that choice is unpopular and not exactly profitable. (i guess you probably gather by now that most of us raw milk drinkers are pretty over-zealous!)

    even if the facts come to prove that his milk was to blame, as it does appear, i don’t think that changes most or any of our (customers’) opinions. raw milk has risks, just like any food. people make mistakes, we are only human. most people drink raw milk for decades without any ill effects, and will attest to the myriad of health benefits.

    i sort of do wonder what your take is on that facts that i shared to counter your statements about the safety or risks of raw milk. i don’t like how the CDC cherry picks facts and presents them to make it sounds like raw milk is any less safe than pastuerized dairy. “outbreaks” is not an accurate barometer of safety as an outbreak of raw milk might involve 3 people (usually it is less than 10) and of course with pastuerized milk it involves hundreds if not thousands. also to note is raw milk outbreaks are less likely to result in serious complications and hospitalizations, they are usually rare and sporadic in the number of consumers who actually get ill from the exposure. dairy in general is actually not a “risky” food when you look at the statistics compared to other foods. compare that to other outbreaks where are very large percentage of those exposed get sick, very sick.
    i guess you just gotta go with your gut. which i respect. it is an opinion. but the facts really do not support the idea that raw milk is any less safe than most other foods we consume.

    until i get another hook-up, i will not drink pastuerized milk from the store.

  6. Frank,

    I don’t really disagree with anything you say, but the core point here is how the BCHD is managing this particular (and others) instance. They’re putting a single-minded focus on raw milk before collecting necessary proof (and apparently neglecting to pursue other possibilities given that focus), and taking every chance throughout the local media environment to present raw milk as an inherently and uniquely dangerous product different from anything else. I doubt that would happen with any other product (can you imagine the same media blitz from them for soda or ground beef as a whole?), but they feel comfortable issuing blanket warnings that reflect poorly on all farmers and all sources of the product regardless of context or evidence. As we already wrote above, they’ve very quickly backed off their initial claim and it still seems there’s no clear idea what the source is, but they’re still repeating the same “raw milk is evil” mantra with nothing to back it up that relates to this specific incident. Regardless of how policy and personal choices fall on the spectrum of protection vs. freedom, I consider this inappropriate behavior that would have them in contact with corporate lawyers if they did it to a corporate food product rather than one produced by individual small farmers with little power or time to fight back. Whether or not children are involved relates to the parents’ choices, and has nothing to do with the reputations and practices of the farmers directly involved or indirectly smeared by this behavior. And if it does turn out to be a specific farm source of raw milk, that still doesn’t justify the blanket overreaction any more than treating an outbreak from any other product as a reason to ban or smear that product rather than deal with the specific circumstances involved.

    Lizi,

    We can’t be drawn into a discussion about the relative health/safety merits of raw vs pasteurized milk. The internet is full of these discussions and it’s not worth our time. We’ve made it clear that we support the rights of adults to purchase and use raw milk, and that we personally do not do so or allow our customers to do so; there are many options out there for those who feel otherwise in either direction.

    The point of the quote you cited above is that the profit margin on milk is quite small, and the financial risks quite large. As a full-time self-employed business, the income we can/could make on raw milk doesn’t begin to pay for the potential liability and legal costs of dealing with a situation like the current one, which could quickly swallow our farm and farm business if it involved us. No matter of ethical good feelings changes the basic economics of this reality; good intentions and brotherly love don’t pay for health insurance, retirement savings, mortgage payments, labor costs, and lawyers. This is why we have the policy we do; the possibly small decrease in nutrition and/or quality from home pasteurization or cooking is a more than adequate tradeoff for the fiscal and legal security of keeping our farm business a going concern. No customer, however loyal, stands to lose anywhere near as much as we or any farmer do if or when something like this happens.