The sense of déjà vu was eerie. First the California Department of Food and Agriculture posted a press release on its site: It had ordered a recall of raw cream produced by Organic Pastures Dairy Co.
Then the Associated Press came out with a story, which was published by the San Jose Mercury News, one of the state’s largest newspapers. Listeria monocytogenes had been found in some of the cream, which “can cause the serious infections in children and the elderly. Healthy adults can experience symptoms including fevers, severe headaches, nausea and diarrhea.”
Associated Press is one of the largest news services in the world, yet it didn’t bother with comment from anyone at Organic Pastures (or even indicate no one could be reached).
It was September 21, 2006, when CDFA officials issued their first recall, and eventually shut down the state’s largest raw milk dairy for two weeks, after five children believed to have consumed raw milk became ill. (The photo above, from Organic Pastures, shows two federal Food and Drug Administration agents taking samples from the farm’s soil in their search for E.coli during the shutdown.) The illnesses, four of which came from a common strain of E.coli 0157:H7, were never connected definitively to bacteria at Organic Pastures.
The way Mark McAfee, Organic Pastures’ owner, explained it to me, the listeria m finding in his dairy’s cream sounded very similar to findings at several New York and Pennsylvania raw milk dairies over the last few months. “After nine days of testing a sample, they got a positive reading,” he said. He said he was told by a state lab official that the finding “was considered to be subclinical.” He said technicians “put the milk in a petrie dish and use a special broth that suppresses the growth of other bacteria to encourage the growth of the listeria. By definition, the listeria they get is an extremely low level.”
The recall order applied to 200 pints of cream sent to 45 stores, out of 300 stores that normally carry Organic Pastures products. Nearly all the cream had already been purchased, and no one has become ill, Mark told me. Similarly, in New York and Pennsylvania listeria m. cases, no one has become ill.
Mark says his dairy tests samples of all milk that leave the dairy for E.coli 0157:H7. “But we screwed up by not testing for a broader range of bacteria.”
Organic Pastures has just in the last few days purchased special equipment that “will test for all the politically significant bacteria—camphylobacter, E.coli, listeria, and salmonella…We probably should have been doing that before.”
He said the cream in question actually came from a dairy in Northern California that produces raw organic milk because, “We can’t make enough cream to satisfy our own customers.”
Mark criticized the state’s testing and announcement procedures. “This is a huge to-do about nothing because the conditions in the lab are not human conditions…They did not shut us down…Yesterday at a farmers market people were giving us high-fives because we are still selling milk.”
He added that he expects demand for raw milk to increase yet again. “Every time this happens, the people who want whole food are stirred up even more.”
Nor has he lost any of his combativeness. “We are in a place that is politically incorrect…I am in the business of producing good bacteria…But every opportunity they (government regulators) have they will stick a knife in our back.”