The outbreak of raw-milk-linked illnesses at Foundation Farm in Oregon has the potential to be a watershed event–an event that changes people’s fundamental views on raw milk safety and production.

By any measure, it’s a serious situation. The Oregon Health Authority reports that 19 people have been sickened, 15 of them young people (under 19 years of age). Four children have been hospitalized with kidney failure.

Moreover, E.coli O157:H7 uncovered at the farm, and in one sample of milk, has been matched to eight of the individuals who were sickened. It seems clear that the farm’s milk made people very sick.

The reverberations will likely be significant, both in terms of potential long-term ill effects for the children, and serious personal-injury lawsuits for the farm owners.

The episode has given pause to many raw milk drinkers, first and foremost, members of the Foundation Farm herdshare. One member of the 48-family herdshare, who wasn’t sickened and doesn’t want to be named, explained to me in an email:

“I was sickened once by raw milk and left that farm. It took me a while to find another dairy that wasn’t making those same mistakes and Foundation Farm passed muster. I asked lots of questions about philosophy, food safety processes, animal husbandry, and observed their milking process. No matter how diligent you are shopping as a customer, in the end you have to trust that what you see when you inspect is what occurs every day. The (owners) use contemporary small scale farm food safety precautions in milking, handling raw milk, cleaning udders and milking equipment. They are conscientious and care passionately about providing safe, healthful, and nutritionally dense food.

“Obviously something went very wrong or wasn’t done right in their milking process, or the milk contamination and e.coli infections never would have happened. Even one mistake can lead to disaster, and this time disaster struck hard. They’re reassessing every single step in their milking and handling process to do every thing they can to make sure this never happens again with milk from their farm. My own responsibility is to study up so that when those new procedures are in place and the farm re-opens, I can evaluate and hopefully know where I stand on a raw milk pathogen exposure risk scale and if I’m confident those new processes provide enough safe guards.”

Among raw milk drinkers having no association with the herdshare, there is unease, even resentment, as well. On the OregonLive web site, which has been reporting on the outbreak, one reader stated: “It really is too bad these bozos have to give the entire raw milk movement a black eye with their unsanitary conditions. If people only took the time to educate themselves and know how healthy raw milk can be.”

Said another: “The named Wilsonville farm gives a black eye to raw milk. Overall, raw milk is safe. Lots of great cheeses are made from it. If you have your cows stand in mud, crap, and splash their udders, you’re going to cause disaster to unwitting milk buyers.”

The unease has spread among producers as well. I am told the Oregon outbreak has convinced at least some herdshares in California to shift their positions on raw milk standards. Herdshare representatives have been negotiating a possible compromise with the California Department of Food and Agriculture over the state’s role in regulating the operations. The negotiations had stalled over the insistence by herdshares that there be minimal sanitation and safety guidelines for the herdshares. Now, herdshares seem more receptive to the state’s approach, which includes voluntary standards for coliform, standard plate count, and other measurable items.

The shift would seem to open up an opportunity for the Raw Milk Institute to act as a representative of herdshares in California, and perhaps in other places, like Oregon. When RAWMI was first announced last year, there was widespread opposition to RAWMI among smaller dairies, especially those with herdshare and food club arrangements. They saw RAWMI as serving in the role of substitute regulator.

Now, in the new atmosphere, RAWMI may stand to benefit from something of the attitude, “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.”

Certainly many opponents of raw milk are taking satisfaction in what is going on in Oregon. A dairy industry publication has an article repeating the old industry adage that raw milk illnesses give the entire dairy industry “a bad name.” The industry doesn’t want to acknowledge that raw milk illnesses merely give its competition (raw milk) a bad name…because the industry doesn’t want to acknowledge how much it fears the competition.

For raw milk supporters, it’s tempting to resort to similar sound bites–that people get just as sick from other foods, that the zero-tolerance expectations for raw milk are unrealistic, and so forth.

No, it’s time for the raw milk community to begin accepting the reality that, for better or worse, raw milk, and raw dairy in general, is by its very nature a lightning rod. Illnesses attract attention that are way out of scale compared to other foods.

It’s a situation comparable in certain respects to airliner disasters. We know that, statistically, auto travel kills many more people in a year than airliner crashes, even in their worst years. Yet even a single airliner crash attracts massive media attention–how could this have happened, why aren’t there better safeguards, the grieving relatives, the story of the guy or gal who happened to miss the doomed flight.

The reason we ignore the statistical realities when an airliner crashes is that the event is inherently much more spectacular than any car crash…indeed, than any ten or twenty car crashes. Maybe because those in a passenger jet have no control over what happens, while in a car, there is some measure of perceived control. Whatever, there is an emotional component to airliner crashes that renders data nearly irrelevant.

Raw milk illnesses like what happened in Oregon are similar in the sense that there is an emotional component that renders the larger database nearly irrelevant. The emotional component is that children seem likelier to be sickened in raw milk outbreaks than with other food illnesses. So even while illnesses from raw milk only account for one-half of one percent of all reported illnesses each year, they get public attention far outweighing their statistical impact.

Like the phenomenon or hate it, blame it on Big Dairy or the lawyers, that’s reality. That means the tolerance levels for raw milk illnesses are much lower than for other foods. Producers and consumers are going to need to accept that reality, and adjust accordingly. Denial and burying heads in the sand aren’t going to cut it much longer. Producers need to figure out how to keep improving their processes, and guard against tragic letdowns.

The Raw Milk Freedom Riders will be putting on a two-day event May 13-14 in Minnesota in connection with the upcoming trial of Alvin Schlangen on charges of selling raw milk and other foods without proper permits. There will be a repeat of the “Know Your Rights Workshop” that was such a big hit in Wisconsin earlier this year, and a demonstration outside the courthouse where Schlangen faces a trial expected to last three days.