I look at the illness outbreak blamed on Texas’ largest raw dairy, and I’m mystified. It happened at a dairy with apparently impeccable cleanliness and serious attention to safety.
We don’t know much beyond what Texas health authorities say about the evidence they have, and the fact that the one case of serious illness that’s been made public involves a woman who says the milk she drank from Lavon Farms was her first experience with raw milk, coming at the suggestion of a friend.
I should preface what follows, in terms of illnesses blamed on raw milk, with the acknowledgment that I am well aware all foods make people sick. I’m also aware that as raw dairy explodes in popularity, its enemies–Big Dairy, government regulators, the public health community, and others–become ever more determined to curtail consumption, stamp out raw dairy entirely. We can see that in the totally cynical way opponents used the illnesses in Texas to try to de-rail legislation to expand raw milk availability.
When you’re under assault by forces with superior firepower, you can either stand there and take it, or you can intelligently fight back. In my view, it behooves all of us who value our food rights to fight back intelligently, and that means in part being forthright about the issues, including the issues the opponents say they are most concerned about. So I want to do some exploration around this issue of illness from raw milk, since this isn’t the first time we’ve seen the situation we’re seeing in Texas. Because it involves illness and raw dairy, it gets blown up for the purposes of fanning fear.
First off, it could be that Lavon Farms had a slip-up in its safety process, and a batch of milk became contaminated with salmonella. Anyone can slip up, even the most meticulous of food producers.
Beyond that, there’s a theme that has come up from time to time when I write about illnesses from raw milk: the very real possibility that newbies– children and adults trying raw milk for the first time, sometimes with health issues, or a combination of the two factors–are most prone to potentially serious problems from raw milk that is contaminated.
One of the challenges with trying to prove this hypothesis is that we don’t know a lot about most of the reported victims of raw milk. Their identities are protected by privacy laws. But those cases that have become public, either because they’ve filed court suits, or chosen to go public, repeatedly demonstrate this theme.
* Each of four cases highlighted on the web site of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which went up last year with much fanfare, are of newbies–two adults and two children.
* All five cases highlighted on the Real Raw Milk Facts web site, another site launched last year with heavy promo, are also of first-time raw milk drinkers (three of the cases appear as well on the CDC web site, perhaps part of an intended echo effect, so it’s really two additional cases, one of an adult and one of an infant).
So of six cases that have gotten the full dramatic video treatment on web sites designed to spread fear about raw milk over the last year, all are first-time drinkers. There are a few other cases over the last few years that have similarly received much public attention–I’m thinking in particular of Lauren Herzog, a second child who became very ill in September 2006, at the same time as Chris Martin, who is featured on the CDC web site, in connection with the outbreak blamed on Organic Pastures Dairy Co.
To those cases, you can now add Mary Chiles from Texas.
I’m not suggesting that only newbies become ill from raw milk. There are a number of outbreaks–in California, Colorado, and the Midwest– in which experienced raw milk drinkers have become ill. But in none of those cases did an experienced raw milk drinker become seriously ill, from what I can determine.
For example, a survey by public health officials in California of individuals who became ill from raw milk from a Del Norte County dairy showed that six of the fifteen (40%) were first-time drinkers. As it happens, one of those first-timers became so sick she was paralyzed (and is one of those featured in the video on the Real Raw Milk Facts web site).
There is no indication that any of the nine more experienced drinkers suffered serious illness.
The public health authorities seem not to want to take notice of this anomaly. Indeed, I’ve wondered in the past why the public health community doesn’t encourage research into this situation, to try to improve the usefulness of its advisories on raw milk. The only possible answer I can come up with is that that the public health community has its mind already made up–if you believe deep in your heart that raw milk is inherently dangerous, then why do research that might muddy your thinking?
This is an extremely important matter because the public health and medical communities point to the dramatic cases featured on the CDC and Real Raw Milk Facts web sites as proof positive that raw milk is so inherently dangerous that no one in his or her right mind should be drinking it. But more significant, these cases are used to justify federal and state crackdowns on raw dairies, and as key evidence to defeat state legislation allowing for limited availability of raw milk. As such, the cases are highly damaging to raw dairy farmers of all types, jeopardizing their livelihoods, and jeopardizing as well the availability of raw milk to millions of regular drinkers.
If, indeed, the situation is more nuanced–that there is a very slight danger of serious illness for some individuals who have never before consumed raw milk–then dairy farmers might press harder on the safety front. And public health authorities may well need to adjust their warnings, targeting them to those individuals.
If the public health community isn’t doing its job–in fact, is misrepresenting the reality–then how can people interested in raw milk learn about the reality? How about if raw dairy producers and proponents take the lead? Here’s what I mean:
There’s the matter of implementing safety standards. A number of people here, like Tim Wightman, Mark McAfee, and Scott Trautman, have discussed organizing a raw milk association that would establish standards and monitor member dairies. Maybe it’s time for that effort to move forward.
In addition, I’m thinking that farmers should consider issuing strong warnings beyond the general ones they already use, to advise new customers about the potential dangers of raw milk. Moreover, they might consider as well advising regular customers not to give raw milk to friends or neighbors who have never before had it.
And consumers need to accept responsibility to check out raw milk producers in terms of their safety precautions, and the special qualities of their milk. David Augenstein, a public health expert and raw milk proponent, puts it this way in a new publication he’s just put out, “Finding Your Safe Local Raw Milk”:
“If you are lacto-intolerant, a first time raw milk drinker or changing to another dairy, it is recommended to acclimatize your body and build immunity for the microorganisms specific to the dairy’s ecosystem that varies from dairy to dairy. To do this, begin with half a cup of milk, yogurt or kefir each day for about a week. This will reduce the risk of stomach upset or diarrhea that could be experienced by some people.”
The larger suggestion I am making here is that the raw milk community take the lead in being upfront about the danger of raw milk illnesses in certain narrow situations. For example, it might make sense for farmers to speak with anyone trying raw milk for the first time, and inquire into their decision to begin drinking raw milk; most farmers know their customers well. Ask if they have any illnesses or conditions that might have depressed their immune systems. Ask if they have made any other changes to their diet in terms of nutrient-dense foods.
On this last point, I have a friend who has read some of my writing about raw milk, and occasionally asks me if I think he should drink it. I know he mostly consumes the standard American diet, and emphasizes low-fat foods, so I’ve told him that, no, I don’t think raw milk makes sense for him. To me, you consume raw milk as part of a larger decision to change your approach to diet and health–to eliminate processed foods and sugar and to seek out nutrient-dense foods. You don’t do it in isolation.
Those of us who value food rights need to make this point more emphatically. Raw milk isn’t a magical medicine people suddenly begin gulping down to cure MS or cancer. It may well be useful in aiding such conditions, but usually part and parcel of a larger, more holistic approach.
Moreover, it’s not appropriate to ignore or deny the serious illnesses that are so damaging to both the health of the individuals affected, and the reputations of the farmers who are held responsible. The illnesses need to be acknowledged and used to teach, rather than used as a political football. ?