Do a Google search under “Wisconsin raw milk illnesses, football team,” and up pop ten headings from media outlets and product liability lawyers, all proclaiming pretty much the same thing: “Raw Milk Blamed for Illnesses…”


It all seems pretty cut and dry. Some wacko parents had the nerve to bring raw milk to a pot luck dinner for the Durand High School football team on September 18. At least 22 kids got sick from campylobacter. The only food they all had in common was raw milk. The campylobacter found in 17 of the kids was the same strain as campylobacter found in several cows at the farm from which the milk was produced. Left twisting in the wind of the reports: More “proof” that raw milk is a ticking time bomb, unsafe under any circumstances. 

Not surprisingly, this being Wisconsin, there is more to the story than public health and agriculture officials or the media or the lawyers have let on. I had occasion to speak at length with the parents who supplied the milk, and they tell a story that is much less cut and dry than those official accounts on Google. They asked me to not reveal their identity, since there are still regulatory and legal matters pending, 


One thing that everyone agrees on is that the football team members who got sick almost certainly became ill from food they ate at a pot luck team dinner on Thursday, September 18. The team dinners are a weekly event during the football season, with several parents supplying food for each dinner on a rotating basis through the season. 


The parents who supplied the milk (whom I’ll refer to as “The Farm Family”) own a dairy farm in the area. They have a son on the football team and have helped at these dinners before, supplying a variety of foods, including raw milk, on at least a half dozen previous occasions, with no one ever getting sick. Here are key points of their story: 


  1. The dairy farm run by The Farm Family is a commercial dairy. The parents and their children are the only ones who consume raw milk on a regular basis. In other words, this isn’t a raw milk dairy, or even a partial raw milk dairy. The Farm Family supplied the raw milk to the team because that’s just the way things still work in many rural areas—dairy families not only consume their dairy’s own milk raw, but make raw milk available to friends and neighbors for special occasions. Not that that is the wisest way to entertain–it’s been well documented that pre-pasteurized milk is risky stuff, with more salmonella and listeria than the industry would like consumers thinking about. If The Farm Family’s raw milk is to blame for the illnesses (and the family has doubts about that), to label this situation a case of “raw milk illnesses” is inaccurate. At worst, it is a case in which pre-pasteurized milk, not raw milk intended for consumption, caused illnesses. 
  2. The various media reports have indicated that the only food the team members had in common was raw milk. But that is inaccurate. The team members also consumed chicken alfredo with noodles. And The Farm Family mom who brought the raw milk didn’t like what she saw as she helped other moms who prepared the chicken. Not only didn’t she like what she saw, but she told them of her concerns—for example, that the cream-based alfredo sauce, which was brought in cold, wasn’t heated fully before serving. More ominous, the mom who brought the chicken pieces (apparently commercial breasts in plastic bags) complained that she had had difficulty cooking the chicken fully—she had problems with her oven heating properly, and had attempted to complete the cooking on an outdoor grill. Whether the cooking completed properly is uncertain, but what The Farm Family mom is certain about is that the team arrived about 20 minutes early for the dinner, ravenously hungry as teenage boys often are, and the moms in charge ignored The Farm Family mother’s concerns and served the chicken before it was fully heated. When The Farm Family mom recounted her concerns later to a nurse at the high school, she was told that the chicken was fully cooked, but the nurse didn’t explain how she knew that. American commercial chicken, as we know, is nearly all contaminated with campylobacter or salmonella, as well as other bad bugs, when it leaves factory farms, according to a Consumer Reports survey earlier this year. The only way to counter the pathogens is, you guessed it, to cook the chicken completely through. 
  3. The team was also served commercially prepared pasteurized chocolate milk that a parent brought in. Because there wasn’t enough of that to serve everyone, the raw milk from The Farm Family was mixed with chocolate syrup in the same plastic jugs as the commercial chocolate milk. When pasteurized milk gets contaminated, it is often after the fact, via flavorings. 
  4. The next night, when the team was supposed to play its football game at a neighboring high school, it rained, and the team took shelter in the strange high school. When team members started drinking water from faucets, they were warned by members of the other team not to drink the water, that it was bad. There is no word that the water was tested. 

Now, having run through all this, it is worth noting that public health inspectors tested milk from The Farm Family immediately after illnesses were reported early the following week, and found no signs of campylobacter. Six days later, inspectors from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection came and took manure samples, and say they found the same strain of campylobacter (technically, #0233) that had turned up in 17 of the sick team members in the manure of 10 of the dairy’s 63 cows. Now, that is a strong piece of laboratory linkage, though The Farm Family wonders how any manure got into the milk in the first place, and even if some did, that it would be enough to sicken that many people. 

Since the investigators assumed they had gotten their man, so to speak, they apparently didn’t test the chicken, sauce, pasteurized milk, or the water in question. (I couldn’t get through to anyone with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services today for further comment; if I do get further information, I will provide an update.) 

So, worst-case scenario, in addition to the distress of too many kids getting a bad case of stomach woes, we have a case very similar to another one in Wisconsin, in 2011. Those illnesses, at a school birthday party, from milk intended for pasteurization, got added to the total of “raw milk illnesses” tabulated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which gathers this data only for it and its pals over at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to discredit real raw milk (as opposed to determining trends and ways to counter problems)…..as will these illnesses, no doubt. 

The Farm Family will likely be excused by regulators. I don’t have a problem with that—these are decent conscientious farmers just doing what rural Americans have been doing for many years. But the reason they will be excused has nothing to do with their attitude or intent. It has to do with that fact that the fairyland that is The Dairyland is fine with members of its cartel serving pre-pasteurized milk, even if people get sick. But the industry, of course, goes apoplectic about any farmers having the right to distribute safe raw milk, no matter how safe. This is the industry that got Wisconsin regulators to spend six years trying unsuccessfully to put Vernon Hershberger in jail because he had the gall to defy them and play outside the cartel, selling food directly to people desperate for nutritionally dense food. 

For America’s Dairyland, the Durand High School football team illnesses will be another play of the old game, heads I win, tails you lose.