Children at a previous year's Milk Makers Fest learning about how milk is produced and processed. When I saw the news heading— “Dozens now sick with E. coli after Milk Makers Fest”—I thought, uh-oh, milk, E.coli, and kids dropping like flies. Talk about a made-to-order story for the public health fear mongers for whom raw milk is Public Enemy Number 1.

As I read the actual article from the Seattle Times, and it didn’t mention “raw milk”—indeed, it didn’t even discuss milk of any kind in its seemingly clinical recitation about how over 1,000 school children attended the event, more than 30 “confirmed” and “probable” cases, one case of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS)—I figured this may not have involved raw milk. But in the code that typifies the media reporting on such things, you couldn’t be sure if pasteurized milk was or wasn’t the culprit.

The lawyers who report on each and every food-borne illness outbreak essentially copied the media reports to communicate the same subtle messages of uncertainty—always mentioning “Milk Makers Fest” in their headings.

Not surprisingly, there is much more to the story than the raw-milk fear mongers would want to think about.

The real story is of an agricultural event that mysteriously went awry, despite the best laid plans to combat pathogens and food-borne illness. The organizers of the Milk Makers Fest in Lynden, Washington, are known as the Whatcom County Dairy Women and they have been sponsoring this event for the past 22 years.

The main event, as it were, is a six-station series of demonstrations for children about how the county’s number one agricultural product, milk, is produced. According to the web site from the Milk Makers Fest describing this annual event, the most popular one with the kids is the station where “The Whatcom County Dairy Ambassadors hand out chocolate milk and explain all the nutritional benefits of dairy products in a daily diet at the Dairy Products station. The students first wash their hands behind a real Milk Truck tanker, just like the ones that visit the local farms to pick up their milk for processing. The students have a chance to interact with a real ‘princess’ and many write back to tell us this was their favorite station.”

In a series of recent updates about the illnesses, the Whatcom County Dairy Women have been trying to lay to rest the suggestive notions of the media and lawyer reports that somehow raw milk may have been at fault, or the sanitation precautions insufficient. Here are two of their main concerns, under the heading, “Addressing rumors and misinformation”.

  • Reports of raw milk being served at the fair are false. Here is what the women say:  “The only milk product served to the participants was commercially available pasteurized chocolate milk. Pasteurization kills E.coli. The Health Department has indicated that milk is not considered a likely source of contamination. Questions have been raised about raw milk at the Fest. Some may assume that ‘Twister,’ the simulated wooden ‘cow’ that students can ‘milk’ during the event was delivering raw milk. However, the liquid used in this demonstration is not milk at all, but water with white food dye. No raw milk was served or used during the Milk Makers Fest.” Can’t be much clearer than that.
  • Sanitation ruled. Here is what they said about preparations to ensure the children washed their hands frequently: “The organizers of the Milk Makers Fest were very diligent in their plans and management of the prescribed prevention measures. Generous amounts of anti-bacterial soap were supplied at a handwashing station near the entry/exit of the dairy barn. Every child and participating adult were required to wash their hands before receiving their pasteurized chocolate milk. In addition to the handwashing station, there were three hand sanitation locations positioned near the entry and exit of the animal trailer and the hay maze. The hand sanitation was an alcohol-based sanitizer. Three large bottles were used in the first day two days and when empty, were replaced by several smaller bottles used on the last day.”

So if only pasteurized milk was served and fastidiousness ruled, how did so many children become ill? Maybe we need a new version of the old nursery rhyme: All the pasteurized milk, and all the hand sanitizers, couldn’t put Humpty together again.