For some years, Stephanie and Blake Alexandre were socially friendly with Mari and Peter Tardiff in northern California’s Del Norte County. The couples attended charity and other such events together.
They were together at a party at the Tardiff’s home on Saturday evening June 7, 2008, Stephanie Alexandre recalls. Mari complained to Stephanie that she was feeling sick. Mari had only joined a cowshare run by Stephanie a week previously, and picked up her first milk the previous Sunday, June 1.
Stephanie says it was her first hint that raw milk from her Alexandre Family EcoDairy Farms may have been the cause of illness not only in Mari, but possibly as many as 15 other individuals who had picked it up the previous Sunday. (The Alexandre family is pictured above.)
As things turned out, Mari would become extremely ill, with campylobacter that evolved into a rare condition known as Guillain Barre Syndrome. It would leave her nearly completely paralyzed, and now, while she recovers, still dependent on 24-hour care.
The reason I tell this story is that Mari Tardiff’s attorney, Bill Marler, has posted a video about how Mari and her husband, Peter, are dealing with Mari’s illness. It is an extremely sad story. What I found especially upsetting about the six-minute or so video, though, was a statement at the end by Mari’s husband, Peter, suggesting that the Alexandres knew in advance about campylobacter problems at their dairy.
According to Peter, “They were saying how they go above and beyond and clean the dairy and how they meet all the standards, and all the while they knew they had a problem. It was preventable…If they had told Mari they had had six people coming down with all sorts of campylobacter, Mari would have known they had a problem. But they told her they had a clean product. That is where the betrayal comes in.”
I called Stephanie Alexandre because I wanted to know whether she knew of problems before Mari Tardiff and other cowshare owners became ill. She hadn’t seen the Marler posting when I spoke with her, but said she had no knowledge of illnesses in advance. “We would have stopped (distributing milk) if we knew we had a problem,” she told me. “As soon as we knew she (Mari) got sick, we stopped everything.”
Indeed, the dairy discontinued its herdshare, which had been running for three-and-a-half years and supplying 120 families, with the outbreak of illnesses that May and June.
What was going on here? Was the Tardiff family really accusing the Alexandre family of knowingly distributing bad milk? Not at all, according to Bill Marler. It’s all about “emotions,” he explained to me. “The victims are so overwhelmed emotionally that they say things. There is no evidence the Alexandres knowingly served milk contaminated with campylobacter.”
But he added, “In a legal sense, it makes no difference. If you sell a product that is contaminated, you are responsible for the outcome.”
So it’s just words, as far as Bill Marler, and I guess the legal system, are concerned. I have trouble with that. I have actually removed comments from myt blog suggesting that one or another raw dairy producer knowingly served tainted raw milk. Whatever the legalities, I want to see hard evidence before such a serious personal accusation is made. But with the lawyers in charge, such niceties seem to be irrelevant.
Bill Marler says he posts such videos about victims of food-borne illness so that “the people who produce the food know what happens when they screw up.” It’s all in the interests of cleaning things up, he’s arguing. Of course, there’s also the matter of a potential settlement of this case (though no court suit has been filed); he says he’s provided the full 30-minute video to the lawyer representing the Alexandres.
We also know that out of such problems we get studies like the kind described in my previous post–apparently designed to make people more fearful of raw milk. What would make more sense is if public health officials tried to learn from such experiences. Why did Mari Tardiff, alone among those who became ill, become so violently ill? Was there anything in her medical history that might have made her more prone to the Guillain Barre Syndrome? If we knew that, we really could help other potential victims more effectively than simply preaching fear.
I have my differences with food-poisoning attorney Bill Marler, but let’s give credit where it’s due. He stood up today to his alma mater, Washington State University, when it canceled out food author Michael Pollan from a speaking engagement. Marler suspected politics was at work–based on Pollan’s opposition to agribusiness expressed in his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Marler decided to test the university’s claim that it was a budget decision by offering to pay Pollan’s way, and the university today accepted. I’d say Pollan owes Marler a nice natural food dinner, especially since New York Times picked up the story.