Another example of regulator bias against raw milk occurred on May 29 when the Pennsylvania Departments of Agriculture (PDA) and Health (PDH) issued a joint press release advising consumers to discard milk produced by the Family Cow dairy in Chambersburg, “because of potential bacterial contamination.” The press release notes, “The Department of Health has confirmed five cases of confirmed Campylobacter infection in people who consumed milk from the farm [Family Cow] . . . .”
The release reported that raw milk samples the PDA took on the May 17 were confirmed positive for campylobacter. After the positive test results, PDA ordered the dairy to suspend sales until further notice.
The Family Cow is one of the largest raw milk dairies in the country, milking over two hundred cows. According to Edwin Shank, the dairy sells an average of 110,000 servings of raw milk per month. With that much milk sold, there typically would have been many more cases of campylobacter among consumers of Family Cow raw milk if the dairy were actually responsible for the illnesses. Shank said that out of the five people with confirmed cases of campylobacter who drank raw milk produced by the dairy, one was in Pittsburgh, one in Philadelphia, one in Shippensburg and two in York; typically in a raw milk outbreak, even with a dairy the size of the Family cow, the illnesses would be more clustered.
The alleged outbreak occurred only about a month after the release of a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report on a February 2012 campylobacter outbreak blamed on the Family Cow, an outbreak Shank has taken responsibility for. The CDC report claimed that raw milk could not be safely produced, a statement that Shank publicly challenged. One noticeable difference between the 2012 outbreak and the latest one was that the PDH and PDA communicated very little with Shank during their investigation of the 2013 outbreak—something that usually doesn’t happen during a foodborne illness outbreak investigation. The state was never able to match the raw milk samples testing positive for campylobacter with the stool samples of the confirmed cases.
PDA reinstated the Family Cow to sell raw milk during the first week of June. The lack of evidence against the dairy pointed to it being blamed for the five illnesses not because it actually caused the outbreak but because it was the raw milk producer that was the easiest to target given its presence and visibility in the Pennsylvania market.
On January 27 the Pennsylvania Department of Health (PDH) issued a press release advising consumers who purchased raw milk produced by the Family Cow dairy in Chambersburg that “the department confirmed three cases in Maryland, all of whom consumed raw milk from this farm.” Three weeks later the number of confirmed campylobacter infections had increased to seventy-seven. Shortly after PDH’s announcement, Edwin Shank, the owner of the Family Cow, voluntarily suspended all sales of raw milk even though recent test results from the farm’s milk had all been negative for campylobacter, mentioning on his website that several customers had called to tell him that they were sick.
On February 2 the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reported it had found campylobacter in two unopened jugs of Family Cow raw milk. In a post on his website, Shank stated, “… it was us. Food from our farm has made people sick.” The bottling date on the milk was January 16.
On February 6 the Family Cow resumed sales of raw milk; during the time, Shank made major renovations to the dairy operation. His handling of the situation and willingness to accept responsibility drew praise even from opponents of raw milk.
Media coverage of the Family Cow was constant and extensive from the time PDH issued their January 27 release in both the local and national media. The media double standard in reporting raw milk foodborne illness compared to outbreaks caused by pasteurized milk was easy to notice again. In October 2011 PDH issued a health advisory that Brunton Dairy in Aliquippa had been found responsible for sixteen illnesses that it attributed to the consumption of pasteurized milk produced by the dairy between March and August 2011. Two lawsuits had been filed against the dairy by people who claimed they had become sick from the dairy’s milk with one of the litigants stating in his complaint that he suffered septic shock and kidney failure as a result of consuming the farm’s pasteurized milk, requiring dialysis three times a week. Media coverage on the Brunton Dairy outbreak was nonexistent compared to the reporting on the Family Cow—further evidence of the media bias against raw milk.
You can read about this case from the farmer’s perspective, as it unfolded in real life, on their website here: http://www.yourfamilycow.com/the-heart-of-your-farmer.
Pete Kennedy is an attorney from Sarasota, Florida and president of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund (farmtoconsumer.org). He compiled the state milk laws posted at realmilk.com. He advises many farmers and members about legal issues surrounding raw milk.