How do you respond to a parent who accuses you of aiding and abetting the company that made her daughter seriously ill? I’ve been grappling with that question for the last ten days, since I received an email from Melissa Herzog, the mother of one of the five children who became ill in California last September in cases that have been associated with Organic Pastures Dairy Co.
Since receiving the email, I have gained a further education into the complexities of tracking E.coli illness, along with the dangerous blame game that can develop after someone gets sick.
In the email, Melissa berated me for my original BusinessWeek.com article about Organic Pastures, where I quoted owner Mark McAfee as saying that two of the children who became ill had consumed spinach. (At the time the article came out, four children’s illnesses had been identified by state authorities as possibly related to Organic Pastures’ raw milk; a fifth was added later.)
“I am the mother of the 10-year-old little girl that got sick and she did NOT have any spinach,” Melissa wrote. “It outrages me that he (McAfee) doesn’t have his story right and it gets into print. She, like the other 4 children, had Organic Pastures raw milk (without my knowledge) and became sick exactly 3 days later (when e-coli makes itself known). I’m not a dairy owner nor a doctor but it seems to me it is the likely reason my daughter became sick.”
She went on to say that her daughter, Lauren, had drunk the milk while at another person’s home, and had “spent two months in a hospital fighting for her life.”
I wrote Melissa twice requesting to speak with her, but she didn’t respond to my emails. I wanted to learn more about her daughter’s experience—how her recovery has gone, how much raw milk she had consumed, whether she had ever had it before, what evidence Melissa had that the E.coli came from Organic Pastures’ milk, etc.
However, I was able to locate one of the other key people in this situation—the woman who fed Lauren the raw milk. It turns out that Melissa is divorced from Lauren’s father, Peter Herzog, and their daughter spends time with both parents. Peter has been seriously involved with a woman in Rancho Mirage, CA, Chelsea Higholt.
Lauren spent last Labor Day weekend with her father, at Chelsea’s home, along with Chelsea’s two children from a previous marriage. As Chelsea recalls it, Lauren consumed a miniscule amount of raw milk—part of a smoothie Chelsea made for four of them that included strawberries, banana, vegetable protein powder, coconut milk, and one-third cup of raw milk. “We’d been drinking raw milk for three months, and we don’t drink very much,” says Chelsea.
Lauren became sick a few days later, after returning to her mother, and Melissa notified public health officials. Chelsea responded to their inquiries, providing a run-down of the foods they had consumed, and when raw milk came up, the officials wanted to know more. She volunteered the container of Organic Pastures raw milk, which was tested and found not to contain any E.coli.
“I’m really confused about how E.coli was in the milk,” says Chelsea. “Why wouldn’t my three-year-old and five-year-old have gotten sick?”
Unlike Melissa, Chelsea isn’t convinced it was the raw milk that made Lauren sick. “I’d be the first person, if it made my kid sick, to say, ‘Let’s get rid of the milk.’”
She speculates that Lauren might have become ill from a hamburger she had with her mother. She recalls herself becoming sick from hamburger a few years ago.
She also blames doctors for giving Lauren antibiotics, which appear to have made her case much more serious than it likely would have been otherwise. She adds that Lauren has recovered well from her ordeal.
But Melissa isn’t ready to give in to other possibilities. In her email to me, she added, “Most people have grown up drinking pasturized/homogenized milk and have lived normal, healthy lives. Unfortunately, there are a lot of extremists in this world. I believe that people should have the right to choose what they eat or drink, but an innocent child, that was normal and healthy and did not need to be put on any freak Organic diet, should not have been given this milk. Adults should be more mindful and heed warning labels.!!!!!!!!”
Mark McAfee is as puzzled as Chelsea. He confirms that Lauren was diagnosed with E.coli 0157:H7. But he points out again that just as no E.coli was found in Chelsea’s milk, no E.coli was found in any of his milking cows.
All the same, he acknowledges, “I cannot guarantee that there will not be a pathogen. I cannot guarantee you will not become ill.” And he adds this point: “Some consumers think they’re supposed to be guaranteed safe food. People looking for guarantees about the safety of our food system are looking for a pipedream.”
Part of the problem is that we don’t fully understand the dynamics of E.coli—why it appears when it does and why some people become ill and others don’t. A summary of an article in Science (posted by mac yesterday in comments about my FDA posting) suggests the difficulties.
What Mark is really saying is that we have to assume some responsibility for what we consume. If food preparers don’t wash their hands and pass on illnesses, then the preparers are responsible. But as we’re learning from one contamination outbreak after another, the culprits aren’t always so easy to identify. We can do the best we can to reduce the odds by trying as much as possible to eat food from known and proven sources and to keep our own immune systems as strong as possible. And accept that we could become sick.
Otherwise, it’s too easy to play a blame game that really goes nowhere—whether we blame an unseen government or friends of family.