There’s news about a possible outbreak of campylobacter from raw milk in North Carolina, that likely affected three people, and possibly affected as many as eight.

Now, chances are you’ve read that news elsewhere, such as on the many lawyer web sites that play up seemingly every food outbreak, or in national media, like Forbes, or in a number of local media news and television stories.

All kinds of anti-raw-dairy folks are climbing on the bandwagon, as well, including Cattle Network, a trade publication, which is using the announcement to fan the flames, and even to push its idea that veterinarians should be FDA spies, reporting on dairies that distribute raw milk. Just what we need, more spies, more repression.

Where did these places learn about the outbreak? From a press release put out by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on the national public relations distribution site, PR Newswire.

Just an aside: I used to use PR Newswire on behalf of clients when I was in the public relations business. I generally only used it for corporate clients, since it is the largest, and certainly the most expensive, among many dozens of such services in the country. 

Press releases on this and other services are priced based on length–for PR Newswire, it’s $715 for the first 400 words and $195 per each additional 100 words.  The FDA’s press release ran 1,214 words,  which would work out to $2,470 at published rates. (An FDA spokesperson tells me the FDA has a contract with PR Newswire that presumably discounts the cost some.) The release ran on so long, not because the North Carolina situation was so complicated to explain, but because the FDA chose to include lengthy statements warning about the dangers of raw milk, and seeking to disparage raw milk proponents. “Proponents of drinking raw milk often claim that raw milk is more nutritious than pasteurized milk and that raw milk is inherently antimicrobial, thus making pasteurization unnecessary.  There is no meaningful nutritional difference between pasteurized and raw milk, and raw milk does not contain compounds that will kill harmful bacteria.”

The obvious question that comes up is this: Does the FDA give this much attention to other food-borne illnesses?

The FDA says there was nothing unusual in its scheme of things for putting out the North Carolina food-contamination press release the way it did. All its press releases are posted on its site and placed on PR Newswire, its spokesperson says. As for the Saturday issuance, the spokesperson insists, “When there is a public health issue, FDA puts out a press release as soon as possible, regardless of whether it’s a normal workday or a weekend.”

Moreover, the spokesperson says, the FDA has issued press releases warning of other foodborne illness cases. She points to a press release warning people not to eat a particular brand of sprouts, based on twenty illnesses in five states; one warning people not to eat oysters from an area of Florida; and another warning of hazelnuts tainted with E.coli 0157:H7 that sickened seven people from four states .

But all those cases involved public distribution, via retailers or restaurants, of products found to be currently contaminated. The milk distributed in North Carolina wasn’t distributed via public channels, but rather through a private club within the state. And the South Carolina dairy where the milk was produced hadn’t as of the release time been found to be contaminated, and the instances of people who might have become ill had occurred a month earlier.

The FDA tends not to issue press releases in cases in which the threat from illnesses is thought to have passed. Many of these other cases are broadcast on the websites of product liability lawyers. As one example, the Marler-Clark law firm summarized outbreaks involving tainted bakery and cantaloupe products earlier this year –which resulted in numerous illnesses — yet neither rated an FDA press release.

Why would the FDA feel compelled to get the word out far and wide about a relatively small, locally confined outbreak of food-borne illness that for all practical purposes ended a month earlier?  There are two reasons, which have received much attention here.

The FDA has a case pending against Amish farmer Dan Allgyer in federal district court, filed in April, in which it is seeking a permanent injunction against him serving a private food club that brings raw milk from Pennsylvania to Maryland. That case has been very controversial, and inspired a boisterious demonstration in Washington two months ago, featuring a cow outside the Capitol.

The FDA is also the target of the lawsuit filed by the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, which challenges the legality of the FDA’s ban on interstate sales of raw milk. The FDA has been unsuccessful thus far in its efforts to have the case thrown out, and perhaps frustrated in the process.

As is clear from many posts here, many raw milk producers and consumers support improved safety standards. But the FDA has no interest in improving safety–it only wants raw dairy to disappear. It’s also clear the FDA is using every tool in its arsenal to fight its political battle against raw milk. The only good news I can see is that, if history is any guide, the FDA’s current publicity blitz will simply serve to expand raw milk sales.