We all know the story of the shepherd boy who found entertainment in telling villagers his flock of sheep was being attacked by a wolf. The first time the boy sought help, the villagers came running, only to find the boy was joking. The same thing happened a second time.
Then, when a wolf finally did attack, the villagers ignored the shepherd, and he lost his entire flock to the wolf.
Is a modern-day version of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” unfolding in New York? You decide.
In my previous post, I described the latest example of a questionable finding of listeria monocytogenes in the milk of Chuck Phippen, owner of Breese Hollow Dairy in Hoosick Falls, NY.
It turns out that the finding isn’t just questionable, but very questionable. Here’s the story: When inspectors came calling at Breese Hollow Dairy on Tuesday, May 26 for a sample of the dairy’s milk to test for pathogens, Chuck Phippens wasn’t around. For good reason. He was at a meeting with top NY Ag and Markets officials to discuss, of all things, raw milk safety.
The meeting had been organized over many months by another raw dairy farmer, Jerry Snyder, owner of Sunny Cove Farm in Alfred, NY. Jerry hoped to gain some insight as to why there have been as many as a dozen listeria contamination findings at New York’s raw dairies, without any illnesses. “I’m trying to figure out how to address this whole issue,” he told me. “What are the safety issues?”
Among those present were Jerry Cosgrove, Deputy Commissioner of Ag & Markets, and the head of Milk Control and Dairy Services, Will Francis.
Others there were a dairy expert from Cornell University’s Animal Health Diagnostic Center and Ted Beals, a retired University of Michigan pathologist, who has testified as an expert witness about raw milk safety in a number of the court actions involving raw dairies.
So when the inspectors arrived at Breese Hollow Dairy on May 26, Chuck’s wife, Diane, spotted them at the barn taking samples, and rushed to take her own sample out of the bulk tank. When Chuck returned from the session on raw milk safety, he sent the sample to Cornell’s Quality Milk Production Services for testing. He has a regular relationship with the university service, sending a weekly sample to be tested for listeria, E.coli 0157:H7, and salmonella (doing more on the safety front than the state, which tests monthly).
Last week, NY Ag & Markets informed Chuck his milk was contaminated with listeria monocytogenes, and forced him to not only pull his milk off the market until a new all-clear test came back, but also put out a press release that was picked up around the state, including on television and on the Associated Press (the nation’s largest wire service), per my previous post.
The results from Cornell? You guessed it. No sign of listeria.
I inquired with NY Ag and Markets about the timing of its sampling of Breese Hollow, and an explanation of the discrepancy in results, but hadn’t received a response by close of business today (Monday).
I’m sure they would have said the timing of the visit to Breese Hollow on May 26, while Chuck was meeting with its officials, was a coincidence. And there are some technicalities about the testing that Linda Tikofsky, the Exension Veterinarian at Cornell’s Quality Milk Production Services, explained to me Her lab’s test was a “rapid PCR that looks for (listeria) DNA,” she explained. (PCR stands for “polymerase chain reaction,” which amplifies DNA activity.) It’s designed to improve food safety by providing more rapid results that conventional testing, enabling quick alerts to consumers. Makes sense. She noted that if her testing shows a positive result, then the sample is tested further via a culture. “Cultures have always been the gold standard,” she said. That’s the test the state conducted.
I asked Linda Tikofsky if it wouldn’t make sense for the state to use her lab’s test as a screening device, to keep from coming up with so many questionable cases of listeria-contaminated raw milk. “Potentially, yes,” she said. But, “It would take a change in the system.”
Why won’t NY Ag and Markets entertain a slightly more flexible approach, that wouldn’t compromise food safety? Chuck Phippen thinks he knows why. “Their agenda is to put raw dairy farms out of business,” he said. “It’s such a disconnect. They should be on our side.”
Jerry Snyder, the dairy farmer who organized the safety get-together that led to Chuck’s absence from the farm, agrees. The listeria findings amount to “a speed trap waiting to catch someone going 30 in a 30 mph zone.”
And if you don’t think NY Ag and Markets is above retribution against farmers who speak out, consider this story from Jerry Snyder. A year ago, when gas prices were so high, one of his customers, an elderly woman who lived about 25 miles away, determined that she couldn’t afford the cost of gas to travel to his farm for a $3 half gallon of raw milk. “It was costing her $5 in gas for a $3 container of milk.”
Jerry called an official of NY Ag and Markets to request an exemption to the requirement that consumers come to the farm to buy their raw milk. “I asked him, ‘Would you give me permission to deliver that woman a half gallon of milk? He said no. It was against the law. I lost it. I told him, ‘I know what you are doing, and it stinks.’”
A couple weeks later, inspectors showed up at his farm, and he flunked on several inspection items. “I’ve been milking for 33 years,” says Jerry. “My regular inspector doesn’t even bother to go in the barn” since it’s so clean. “They showed me if they wanted to, they could come after me.”
These stories prompted me to come up with this suggestion for what to name the NY Ag and Markets version of the old “Boy Who Cried Wolf” game. How about “Yassuh Mastuh, Yassuh”?
P.S. You won’t find too many braver individuals than Chuck Phippen and Jerry Snyder. They’re putting their livelihoods on the line, not only to enable ordinary consumers to have access to raw milk, but beyond that, they’re fighting for a freedom that people like Will Francis, Jerry Cosgrove, and Patrick Hooker, the commissioner, are trying to sabotage. If you want to let NY Ag and Markets officials know about your displeasure, their contact information can be found here.