On the face of it, the case against Lavon Farms looks open and shut. Milk from the Plano, TX, raw dairy, the largest in the state, has been genetically linked to four illnesses from salmonella–three of them involving children–over the last few months, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.
But even if you’re inclined to accept such seemingly irrefutable evidence, there are a number of elements to this situation that just don’t feel right. For example:
* The news about the linkage was made public yesterday, just hours before the Public Health Committee of the Texas House of Representatives was due to hold hearings on controversial legislation that would allow the state’s 44 permitted raw dairies to sell milk at farmers markets and county fairs. The hearing was held last evening, and at least one legislator expressed amazement at the timing of the release of information.
* The news was made public by the Texas Medical Association and the Dallas County Health and Human Services department; the Texas Department of State Health Services, which conducted the testing, says it didn’t deem the information about the linkage important enough to publicize beyond the customers of Lavon Farms, and local public health departments. The dairy alerted its 450 or so customers by email last week that milk sales were suspended because salmonella had been found in the dairy’s milk.
* Dairy owner Moore says the state refuses to provide him with details of its findings so he can have additional testing done. He says he went to an independent lab after learning about the state discovery of salmonella. “The food lab I took the milk to asked what the strain (of salmonella) is. I didn’t know, and they won’t tell me the strain because they say it’s under investigation.”
* Even after the email to his customers, not a single one has come forward to Lavon Farms to say he or she was sickened by raw milk, according to Moore. The state won’t reveal the identities of any of those sickened, but a 57-year-old woman has been quoted in several local publications as saying she was one of those affected. Here’s what the Dallas Morning News said: “Mary Chiles, 57, of Dallas said she tried raw milk for the first time at the urging of a friend in February. Soon she had a high fever and was hospitalized. She later learned that she had multiple sclerosis, which likely contributed to her salmonella illness because of a weakened immune system.”
* Moore says tests he conducts (for salmonella, E.coli 0157:H7, and listeria in his own state certified laboratory) of every batch of raw milk offered for sale, have failed to provide any indication of salmonella (or any other pathogen). “I sell over 800 gallons (of raw milk) a week,” he says. “We have tested every load, without a single indication of salmonella.” Moreover, state tests of his milk have consistently shown his milk to be well under the state-mandated 10-coliforms-per-milliliter level (in the bottle). Public health professionals consider high coliform readings to be a precursor of pathogens.
* As the previous suggests, Moore is a stickler for safety and for herd health. He says the walls of his milk parlor are scrubbed daily, and he has a strict protocol for cleaning the milking equipment. “My milk facility is spotless,” he says. “You walk into my barn, and you would not hesitate to drink my milk…We wear hair nets, we wear rubber globes.” For details on Moore’s approach to safety, take a look at the first of a three-part video on his home page. And by the way, there’s no talk of raw milk curing illnesses, or advice to avoid pasteurized milk.
Moore, who is a third-generation dairyman, says that when he first learned two weeks ago about the test showing salmonella in his milk, “I was devastated.” But the more he’s learned, and not learned, he’s changed his attitude. “Two weeks ago, the state had me doubting myself,” he says. But he’s since had “all this positive feedback” from his customers. “I had a doctor call me and he said he has it and he feeds it to his four children…My customers are ready to go to the mat. They want the phone numbers of legislators. They want their milk back.”
I spoke with Judith McGeary, head of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance and a major proponent of the proposed Texas legislation on extending raw milk sales, and she, too, was taken aback by the timing of disclosures. She pointed out that a representative of the Texas Department of State Health Services testified at last evening’s committee hearing that there have been two illnesses attributed to raw milk over the previous twenty years. “Even if these illnesses turn out to be tied to Lavon Farms, that’s six illnesses in twenty years.”
Politics and public health–they just don’t mix. ?