The tragic Vulto Creamery raw cheese outbreak, being blamed for two deaths and six illnesses from listeriosis, comes at an auspicious time.
It comes at a time when many states are considering expanding access to raw milk. I have been contacted by proponents of one state’s legislative proposals, wondering how to respond to likely concerns raised by legislators who have read about the Vulto outbreak.
It also comes at a time when the media are under a microscope for their reporting on politically-charged issues. Raw dairy certainly qualifies as a politically charged issue, and the media haven’t done much to add value or provide clarity to this particular situation.
In terms of media reporting on the Vulto outbreak, the best that can be said is that many of the media, like CNN and CBS News, have not been hysterical in their reporting, with some simply noting that a maker of raw milk cheese has recalled its cheese. However, I have yet to find a single media report explaining that the regulation of raw milk cheese is separate from that of fluid raw milk—that raw milk cheese has been sanctioned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration since 1949 via its 60-day aging requirement, while fluid raw milk is regulated at the state level. Thus, raw milk cheese can be transported freely across state lines and sold at retail food outlets. Raw milk can’t be legally shipped around the country to be sold at retail; it can only be sold at retail within the state where it is produced, if explicitly allowed in state laws and regulations.
One of the big reasons the FDA’s permissiveness on raw milk cheese has worked so well is that there have been very few illnesses and deaths associated with raw milk cheese over the last nearly 70 years, to the extent that the FDA last summer concluded a long-term investigation into raw milk cheeses without recommending changes to the 60-day aging requirement. Aging cheese for 60 days has long been thought to allow any pathogens present in the milk to die off.
The worst example of reporting on the Vulto outbreak came from a pillar of the mainstream media, the NY Times. It assigned a reporter to write about the outbreak, presumably because Vulto is based in NY state. The NY Times article was terribly misleading, apparently confusing raw milk cheese and fluid raw milk by suggesting that safety concerns have been an urgent issue for raw milk cheese, when that hasn’t been the case. It also found someone in the cheese industry to say the FDA’s 60-day aging rule should be re-considered—this after the artisanal cheese industry had fought for several years to finally get the FDA to back off plans to undermine the 60-day aging rule.
Of course, none of the publications, including the NY Times, made mention of the fact that pasteurized soft cheeses have had a number of highly publicized safety problems, such as this one out of California two years ago. Nor did they point out that the listeria contaminating the Vulto Creamery’s cheese likely came from facilities contamination rather than a problem with the raw milk, and thus is probably isolated, requiring strong action by Vulto.
I have to think it was the NY Times article that inspired hysteria elsewhere. For example, an organization called the American Council on Science and Health published an article about the Vulto outbreak: “Like Russian Roulette? Try Raw Milk”. The scientist author clearly had no idea that the FDA has sanctioned raw milk cheese since 1949, with few illnesses. I pointed this out on the site, and was shouted down by ideologues who are similarly ignorant, or willfully blind, to the regulatory facts of the matter.
There was this article on a foodie site: “Should We Avoid Eating Raw Milk Cheese Altogether?” Food hysteria 101.
Back to the auspicious timing, over the last couple weeks I’ve had the privilege of participating in an intensive discussion involving more than 40 classmates of mine from the Columbia Journalism School’s class of 1969 (our class was about 100 students). The spark for the discussion came when one of my classmates who wanted to prod the school to take a public stance protesting President Trump’s assaults and threats against journalists. Getting a bunch of journalists to agree on anything is a monumental task, akin to herding cats, but my classmates have come together, with just a few dissenters, and petitioned the school. The school’s dean, Stephen Coll, has agreed to examine how the school might take journalists’ concerns public.
We’ve also had a provocative discussion about how the mainstream media could have become such a major political scapegoat. That is, how is it that Trump has been able to make so much political hay from channeling resentment to gain popularity by lambasting the media?
A number of my classmates have expressed confusion about why so many people have accepted so easily Trump’s pokes at the media, in light of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment and America’s long tradition of press freedom. Some have pointed to the growing economic disparities that have developed over the last 30 years, and that the media have catered more to the economic “haves” than the “have-nots.”
To me, this particular raw milk cheese outbreak highlights part of the challenge confronting the media. Here, as in many other areas of food and agriculture, the media give precedence to the “official” explanations from government apologists—the CDC and FDA, along with the medical and scientific establishments that back the bureaucrats up. When the government apologists stick with same tired information and guidance and refuse to help the public understand, for example, that there are important differences between raw milk cheese and fluid raw milk, the media simply parrots the propaganda. Which is a sad commentary on both.