bigstockphoto_smoking_gun_827375Federal health regulators claim to have linked two serious illnesses in elderly individuals from listeria in 2014—one in California and one in Florida that resulted in a death—with Miller’s Organic Farm in Pennsylvania.

Irony of ironies, the feds’ key evidence came from chocolate raw milk seized by local regulators during the Weston A. Price Foundation national conference in Anaheim last November, at least a year after the illnesses. The feds say the 2015 milk contained listeria very similar genetically to listeria found in the two victims in 2014.

Adding uncertainty to the federal claim, Amos Miller, the owner of Miller’s Organic Farm, says he never heard from any of his club’s members about any of them or any of their relatives becoming ill, and knew nothing about the federal claims until yesterday (Thursday) when he heard from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control about its report.  People who become ill from what they think is raw milk invariably notify the producer immediately.

“I don’t know that it was proved it’s on the farm here,” Miller said. “We hope and pray for the best.”

What Miller seemed to be suggesting is that the victims, while they might have consumed raw milk, could have become ill from any of a number of other foods that could carry listeria. As just one example,  listeria in Blue Bells Creamery pasteurized-milk ice cream last year killed three people and sickened ten. The Florida and California victims and their families seem not to have made a connection to raw milk.

Miller also pointed out that his farm operates only as a private membership club, supplying milk and other farm-grown products to members. It doesn’t distribute to retail stores or other outlets.

According to a statement issued by the CDC, “Collaborative investigative efforts of state, local, and federal public health and regulatory officials indicate that raw milk produced by Miller’s Organic Farm in Bird-In-Hand, Pennsylvania is the likely source of this outbreak.”

The CDC explains the chain of events surrounding the illnesses this way: “In November 2015, samples of raw chocolate milk were collected from a raw milk conference held in Anaheim, California. The raw chocolate milk was produced by Miller’s Organic Farm. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) isolated Listeria from the raw chocolate milk and conducted WGS testing on the isolate to get more genetic information about the bacteria. On January 29, 2016, FDA informed CDC that WGS determined that the Listeria bacteria from the raw chocolate milk was closely related genetically to Listeria bacteria from two people in two states who got sick in 2014, one from California and one from Florida.” The two sickened individuals were 73 and 81 years old, and the Florida victim died from the illness.

According to the CDC, “Once the two illnesses were identified in late January, public health officials worked over several weeks to interview them or their family members about the foods they may have eaten and other exposures in the month before their illness started. Interviews were conducted with the ill person from California and family members for both ill people. It was reported that both ill people drank raw milk before they got sick. The family of the deceased person in Florida reported purchasing raw milk from Miller’s Organic Farm.”

What isn’t clear from the CDC account is whether the individuals sickened might have been affected by chocolate raw milk, or some entirely different food. Miller has no idea, because, as noted, he never received any feedback from the individuals or their families that they were even sick. It seems strange as well that only two individuals were affected if the milk was contaminated on several occasions, minimum (in 2014 and again in 2015).

Adding flavoring is a processing step that doesn’t occur with non-flavored raw milk. It was post-pasteurization processing, including the addition of flavorings, that contaminated milk with listeria in Massachusetts in 2007, resulting in three deaths.

Part of what makes this CDC linkage surprising is that there hasn’t been a documented case of illness from listeria in raw milk in at least a decade in the U.S. It’s unfortunate that the CDC jumps on this particular case, and ties it to raw milk, when there has been a steady stream of serious illnesses and deaths from listeria and other pathogens in pasteurized dairy products like cheese and ice cream…..illnesses and deaths the CDC never identifies as caused by pasteurized dairy (such as this one in 2010 that sickened 38 people).

As a result of the CDC/FDA obsession with raw milk, this weird and cloudy case also seems very likely to become one of those lightning rods for channeling angry claims and counterclaims. We haven’t had one of these for a good while, and I haven’t missed them. Because all they do is create more suspicion and distrust of the regulators.