The campylobacter outbreak in Michigan and possibly other states affecting Family Farms Co-op just keeps getting worse and worse. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has put out an alert saying that 12 people have been confirmed ill from campylobacter “associated with raw milk.”

And today, the Family Farms Co-op announced that its supplier, Forest Grove Dairy of Indiana, is halting distribution. “Forest Grove Dairy has experienced increasing pressure from FDA over the past week, and notwithstanding the private nature of our herd lease and share arrangement, these pressures embody serious risks,” Family Farms Co-op said in an email to its members. The effect is to leave more than 250 families without their regular supply of raw milk.

My sense is that the FDA and state agencies may be correct in terms of illnesses associated with raw milk. In fact, there may well be many more illnesses to come out of this outbreak before all is said and done. Whether this justifies pressuring a dairy to discontinue raw milk production, even after testing has shown the milk to be free of pathogens, is another question. As the Family Farms Co-op stated in its email to members: “The authority which FDA asserts over raw milk and raw milk products between states is set forth at 21 Code of Federal Regulations 1240.61.  This rule must be eliminated to remove the federal government from its interference in our food choices.  Our new job is to support the removal of this regulation.”

Now, before all you folks in public health start jumping up and down with glee over your “victory” in your war on raw milk and food rights,  you may want to hear from some of the victims of this outbreak.

I’ve had the opportunity to speak with members of two families sickened, and not yet reported in the statistics. They aren’t reported, largely because they’ve held back in fully cooperating with government officials in this situation.  I learned about them from an official of the Weston A. Price Foundation, so understand that even though the sickened individuals are critical of the organization, it was that organization that agreed to help tell their story.

These individuals agreed to speak with me under strict conditions–that I not reveal their identities, or even where they live in the Midwest.  That’s because they are afraid.

How to understand what’s happening with them? Imagine, you are sick, your children are sick, with diarrhea, vomiting, fever. You’re certain you got sick from raw milk because you’ve been speaking with half a dozen other families whose members are similarly sick, and the only commonality in all your illnesses is your consumption of raw milk. But beyond worrying about when everyone in the family is going to get better, you are afraid of other things.

— You are afraid to tell the professionals in your life–your doctor, the hospital emergency room personnel, your children’s teachers–too much because you worry those professionals will inform the government enforcers, who will not only go after the farmer who supplied you with the milk, but other raw dairy producers as well, with a vengeance.

— You are afraid of being viewed as an outcast among your friends at the Weston A. Price Foundation, since it so strongly suggests people don’t get sick from raw milk, and here you went and got sick.

— You are afraid to say anything to your non-raw-milk-drinking friends, since they’ll likely be judgmental, to the effect, “That’s what you get for drinking unpasteurized milk.”

— You are afraid your trust in the farmer who produced the milk was misplaced, yet you still worry the farmer will be forced out of business.

— You are afraid you won’t find a new trusted source for raw milk, and that all the health benefits you were seeing before the outbreak will be forever gone.

As one father of three children who have been sickened said to me last evening: “You’ve got the people who don’t believe in (raw milk). You’ve got those people who are so into it who are going to condemn you as well. It’s not that we wouldn’t believe in raw milk going forward. But you can’t be gullible. The reality is you can get sick if it’s not treated right. This can happen. it’s not foolproof.”

He, his wife, and the children first became ill Feb. 24, and shortly thereafter. He got better after five days (without being tested for pathogens), she after 14 days (and testing positive for campylobacter), but the children have been sick on and off for a month. They have missed enough school that the teachers have begun asking questions about what’s going on. The parents finally had the children tested a few days ago, and when the tests came back positive for campylobacter Saturday, the children went on antibiotics.

At first, neither husband nor wife could believe it was the milk, since they had been drinking it for three years without problems. Their confidence was also based on the contention from some in the Weston A. Price Foundation that it’s nearly impossible to get sick from the milk of pasture-fed cows.  “I believed in that stuff,” the wife says. “It’s almost like a cult.”

Clearly, the parents are upset, and not knowing whom to blame. They wonder if Forest Grove Dairy was increasing its production beyond its capability for quality control, as ever more people joined cowshares and demanded milk. They wonder if the manager of their co-op was withholding important information on illnesses when the outbreaks started. And they wonder what they’ll do to replace their raw milk supply.

“The first couple of years, we got tons of benefits” from the milk–their three young children experienced fewer illnesses. “We’ve seen a lot of health benefits…but when you get sick for a month, it all changes.”

Part of their confusion extends to dealing with public health authorities, who have begun making inquiries, following up on a call the wife made to report her campylobacter diagnosis. She’s backed off, refusing to supply information, such as the name of her and her children’s doctor. “They began pushing too hard,” she says.

A second cowshare member, a mother of two, who says her five-year-old daughter has been sick, but that she and her young son have not, has held off on having the girl tested. “A lot of people don’t want the government knowing,” she says. “I’m the same way–the less they know, the better.”

She has become nearly as cynical about the Weston A. Price Foundation, of which she is a member. “Unfortunately, they are not going to believe” that she and others got sick from raw milk. One official already “told me it’s probably from another source.” And outsiders would never understand, she said.She’d like to see the organization offering advice to sickened individuals on how to handle the illnesses in a natural way.

“Now we’re the freaks. We’re in the middle of these groups.”

She adds, “I would like to go back to drinking raw milk. For me, it seems like we don’t get sick like we used to.” Until now, of course.

This whole situation obviously hasn’t fully played out. But right now, it looks like a sad story–sad because of the illnesses, and sad because of the well placed mistrust ordinary people have about the motives of the medical and public health communities, as well as of the Weston A. Price Foundation. Not to mention that a viable raw dairy may be put out of business.

We should all be sad that ordinary citizens are so suspicious and alienated that they don’t feel comfortable trusting America’s accomplished public health community with information to potentially protect the public health…because they fear that the public health professionals have become something more akin to police agents. Raw milk, as we know, is a proxy issue for other issues, and mistrust of government involvement in our lives is spreading rapidly.

Imagine if the medical/public health communities could actually cooperate with raw milk supporters, with the idea of figuring out what might have gone wrong at the Indiana dairy, and making it right…and providing lessons to other raw dairies. It seems like the Family Farms Co-op has tried to be open and honest about the situation, but that openness isn’t being reciprocated by either the FDA or local public health authorities.

I fear that there are too many parties with too many agendas to turn this situation into a positive learning experience, rather than just another case of told-you-sos and recriminations. Maybe, just maybe, this time can be different.