Last week, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) announced that raw milk from Claravale Dairy had tested positive for campylobacter, forced a recall of all its milk, and quarantined the dairy.

Claravale, one of California’s two largest raw milk producers (along with Organic Pastures Dairy Co.) hasn’t exactly been a model of for raw milk safety of late. This is the second outbreak blamed on Claravale in the last three years; in 2012, the dairy’s milk was blamed for 22 campylobacter illnesses.

Claravale hasn’t said a word about the illnesses on its web site. In the process, Claravale has left itself wide open to being positioned by California public health authorities and the media, and predictably, they have positioned Claravale, and raw milk, as highly dangerous.

Here’s how the situation has unfolded:

In announcing the recall and quarantine, and explaining campylobacter, the CDFA said, “The illness is usually mild and some people with campylobacteriosis have no symptoms at all.”

Earlier this week, the California Department of Public Health went considerably beyond what CDFA had said, announcing, “Six Northern California residents have recently been diagnosed with campylobacteriosis, a bacterial infection that can come from consuming contaminated raw milk. A recent investigation conducted by CDPH identified multiple bottles of Claravale Farm raw milk that tested positive for Campylobacter.”

Note that the CDPH doesn’t say the six people with infections from campylobacter drank raw milk from Claravale. Nor does CDPH characterize the six illnesses; it only makes a general statement “that the consumption of unpasteurized (raw) dairy products may cause serious illness.”

Yet in three news reports from the Bay Area, those illnesses were not only linked to raw milk, but had become “serious” illnesses.

6 Bay Area Residents Fall Seriously Ill After Consuming Raw Milk,” headlined a Fox News outlet.

A similar headline came from Pacifica Patch, a local paper: “Six Bay Area residents have recently fallen seriously ill from consuming raw milk, health officials said.”

Monkey-see-monkey-do, decided a third outlet, an NBC affiliate, which  said in its opening sentence on the same story, “The state Department of Public Health is warning the public of the dangers of consuming raw milk after six Bay Area residents fell seriously ill…”

How did an agriculture department announcement about a finding of campylobacter pathogens, which most often lead to “mild” illness, morph into six definite cases of “serious” illness from raw milk?

Obviously, the CDFA and CDPH weren’t real careful in their terminology. But the media are supposed to read the press releases, make sense of them, and when they can’t make sense of them, inquire with government officials for clarification (and then quote the government officials clarifying the situation). None of that seems to have happened.

I’’m willing to accept the possibility that all six people who became ill from campylobacter had consumed tainted Claravale milk (though I would have liked to have seen an explicit connection). What bothers me more is substitution of the word “serious” for “mild.”

One word can make a huge difference in perception. Why is it that the media descriptions seem to use the most fear-laden verbiage? And why is it that the public health authorities never seem to object to the media putting out erroneous reports?

The public health professionals are supposed to be committed to keeping the public informed about public health threats—making sure to not under-state problems, and especially not to over-state threats, and create undue alarm or panic. And the media are supposed to be committed to accurate reporting. When it comes to raw milk, though, all such concerns get thrown out the window. And when the accused dairy withdraws into silence, it simply rolls out the red carpet to get dragged through the mud