A little over a year ago, I described Edwin Shank’s conversion of The Family Cow from feedlot to the East’s largest raw dairy. It took more than three years, and required extraordinary commitment to producing high-quality nutrient-dense food.

I’ve communicated with Shank on and off since then, seeing him most recently last November, when he was a sponsor at the Weston A. Price Foundation’s annual conference near Philadelphia. By then, an expanding part of his quality commitment had come to include safety, extending beyond what is required by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture in its regulation of raw milk.

The Family Cow brochure states: “”Our family is dedicated to producing the highest quality most healthful milk for your family. We are fully tested, inspected and licensed by the Pennsylvania Department of Ag.  Even beyond that, we are committed to voluntarily run pathogen tests many times more often than required by PA law.”

Today, Shank took an unexpected opportunity to make good on its stated dedication: he suspended all raw milk sales after one of the dairy’s voluntary private tests came back showing a positive reading for campylobacter. Shank explained what happened in a special edition of his farm’s newsletter, issued this evening:

“Just a few hrs ago, QC Laboratories, the laboratory we use for our voluntary, beyond-the-state-requirement pathogen testing, has reported the presence of Campylobacter in a sample of milk we sent them almost three weeks ago. I’ve spoken with state officials and they report there are no illnesses, but we still want you to know what we found. The milk in which the campylobacter was found was bottled on 1/10/11 and carries a ‘Best by’ date of 1/25. If you still have milk with this ‘Best by’ date, please discard it. Although, with milk that old, it’s probably long gone.
“There is no reason to believe that more than this date code of milk was effected, yet out of abundance of caution we are, as of today, voluntarily halting sales of raw milk from The Family Cow until we get a clear test. We are running two tests now on milk that was bottled since the positive sample. We will be in communication when we are ready to resume sales. We expect to have the test results back early next week. Sorry for the inconvenience, but we feel it would be remiss and irresponsible to continue to sell even though there have been no illnesses.”

To those customers who might be scared, he explained further:

“Please understand that we found this precisely because we go over and beyond the state requirement for pathogen testing of raw milk. (actually 12 x more frequent than the requirement) The only way we know anything about it at all is because of our voluntarily testing protocol.  So give us that credit!  We do this extra testing for your peace of mind, the safety of your families and out of abundance of caution.  It would be easier, cheaper and less stressful to simply not know! If we would only be testing at the state required minimum, we would have never found this problem and you and we would be none the wiser.
“Also, as far as I know, we are the only PA dairy, raw or pasteurized, which tests for pathogens in the final retail-ready container at this frequency. (Pasteurized milk is actually never required to be tested for pathogens.) Some experts in the microbiology world have cautioned us that testing with this level of intensity is not a wise business move because, in their words, ‘If you look that hard and test that frequently, you will be sure to have a positive test sometime. Then your farm and food will have bad press while your competition, which tests infrequently or never, will look good!’

“Well, of course we recognize and understand the logic and truth of that statement, but there is an ethical side to the equation which always grounds us and brings us back to our true north. And that is this:  When it comes to your family’s safety, it’s not the government’s standards that we are trying to live up to… it’s yours.  We have faith that you will appreciate our caution, honesty, transparency and forthrightness.  Maybe it’s not best for business but if it’s best for you… it’s good enough for us.

“We’ll keep you posted. Please pray for us.”

All I can say to those in the public health and regulatory communities who snidely argue that producers of raw dairy are in denial about safety, The times, they are a ‘changin, and farmers like Pennsylvania dairyman Edwin Shank are leading the way. ?