Durand High School Football Team Illness: A New Act in Raw Milk’s Morality Play

Brought to You by America’s Dairyland

By David Gumpert

October 29, 2014: Do a Google search under “Wisconsin raw milk illnesses, football team,” and up pop 10 headings from media outlets and product liability lawyers, all proclaiming pretty much the same thing: “Raw Milk Blamed for Illnesses…”

It all seems pretty cut and dried. Some wacko parents had the nerve to bring raw milk to a potluck dinner for the Durand High School football team on September 18. At least 22 kids got sick from campylobacter. The only food they all had in common was raw milk. The campylobacter found in 17 of the kids was the same strain as campylobacter found in several cows at the farm from which the milk was produced. Left twisting in the wind of the reports: More “proof” that raw milk is a ticking time bomb, unsafe under any circumstances.

More to the Story

Not surprisingly, this being Wisconsin, there is more to the story than public health and agriculture officials or the media or the lawyers have let on. I had occasion to speak at length with the parents who supplied the milk, and they tell a story that is much less cut and dried than those official accounts on Google. They asked me to not reveal their identity, since there are still regulatory and legal matters pending.

One thing that everyone agrees on is that the football team members who got sick almost certainly became ill from food they ate at a potluck team dinner on Thursday, September 18. The team dinners are a weekly event during the football season, with several parents supplying food for each dinner on a rotating basis through the season.

The parents who supplied the milk (whom I’ll refer to as “The Farm Family”) own a dairy farm in the area. They have a son on the football team and have helped at these dinners before, supplying a variety of foods, including raw milk, on at least a half dozen previous occasions, with no one ever getting sick. Here are key points of their story:

The dairy farm run by The Farm Family is a commercial dairy. The parents and their children are the only ones who consume raw milk on a regular basis. In other words, this isn’t a raw milk dairy, or even a partial raw milk dairy. The Farm Family supplied the raw milk to the team because that’s just the way things still work in many rural areas—dairy families not only consume their dairy’s own milk raw, but make raw milk available to friends and neighbors for special occasions. Not that that is the wisest way to entertain—it’s been well documented that pre-pasteurized milk is risky stuff, with more salmonella and listeria than the industry would like consumers thinking about.

If The Farm Family’s raw milk is to blame for the illnesses (and the family has doubts about that), to label this situation a case of “raw milk illnesses” is inaccurate. At worst, it is a case in which pre-pasteurized milk, not raw milk intended for consumption raw, caused illnesses.

Not the Only Food

The various media reports have indicated that the only food the team members had in common was raw milk. But that is inaccurate. The team members also consumed chicken alfredo with noodles. And The Farm Family mom who brought the raw milk didn’t like what she saw as she helped other moms who prepared the chicken. Not only didn’t she like what she saw, but she told them of her concerns—for example, that the cream-based alfredo sauce, which was brought in cold, wasn’t heated fully before serving. More ominous, the mom who brought the chicken pieces (apparently commercial breasts in plastic bags) complained that she had had difficulty cooking the chicken fully—she had problems with her oven heating properly, and had attempted to complete the cooking on an outdoor grill. Whether the cooking was completed properly is uncertain, but what The Farm Family mom is certain about is that the team arrived about 20 minutes early for the dinner, ravenously hungry as teenage boys often are, and the moms in charge ignored The Farm Family mother’s concerns and served the chicken before it was fully heated.

When The Farm Family mom recounted her concerns later to a nurse at the high school, she was told that the chicken was fully cooked, but the nurse didn’t explain how she knew that.

American commercial chicken, as we know, is nearly all contaminated with campylobacter or salmonella, as well as other bad bugs, when it leaves factory farms, according to a Consumer Reports survey earlier this year. The only way to counter the pathogens is, you guessed it, to cook the chicken completely through.

The team was also served commercially prepared pasteurized chocolate milk that a parent brought in. Because there wasn’t enough of that to serve everyone, the raw milk from The Farm Family was mixed with chocolate syrup in the same plastic jugs as the commercial chocolate milk. When pasteurized milk gets contaminated, it is often after the fact, via flavorings.

Was it the Water?

The next night, when the team was supposed to play its football game at a neighboring high school, it rained, and the team took shelter in the strange high school. When team members started drinking water from faucets, they were warned by members of the other team not to drink the water, that it was bad. There is no word that the water was tested.

No Signs

Now, having run through all this, it is worth noting that public health inspectors tested milk from The Farm Family immediately after illnesses were reported early the following week, and found no signs of campylobacter. Six days later, inspectors from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection came and took manure samples, and say they found the same strain of campylobacter (technically, #0233) that had turned up in 17 of the sick team members in the manure of 10 of the dairy’s 63 cows. Now, that is a strong piece of laboratory linkage, though The Farm Family wonders how any manure got into the milk in the first place, and even if some did, that it would be enough to sicken that many people.

Only Tested the Milk

Since the investigators assumed they had gotten their man, so to speak, they apparently didn’t test the chicken, sauce, pasteurized milk, or the water in question. (I couldn’t get through to anyone with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services today for further comment; if I do get further information, I will provide an update.)

So, worst-case scenario, in addition to the distress of too many kids getting a bad case of stomach woes, we have a case very similar to another one in Wisconsin, in 2011. Those illnesses, at a school birthday party, from milk intended for pasteurization, got added to the total of “raw milk illnesses” tabulated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which gathers this data only for it and its pals over at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to discredit real raw milk (as opposed to determining trends and ways to counter problems)…..as will these illnesses, no doubt.

The Farm Family will likely be excused by regulators. I don’t have a problem with that— these are decent conscientious farmers just doing what rural Americans have been doing for many years. But the reason they will be excused has nothing to do with their attitude or intent. It has to do with that fact that the fairyland that is The Dairyland is fine with members of its cartel serving pre-pasteurized milk, even if people get sick. But the industry, of course, goes apoplectic about any farmers having the right to distribute safe raw milk, no matter how safe. This is the industry that got Wisconsin regulators to spend six years trying unsuccessfully to put Vernon Hershberger in jail because he had the gall to defy them and play outside the cartel, selling food directly to people desperate for nutritionally dense food.

For America’s Dairyland, the Durand High School football team illnesses will be another play of the old game, heads I win, tails you lose.

For over one hundred other examples of unfair blame placed on raw milk, see “Raw Milk: What the Scientific Literature Really Says,” http://www.realmilk.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/ResponsetoMarlerListofStudies.pdf. Very often raw milk takes the rap for illnesses caused by other foods.

David E. Gumpert is author of The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America’s Emerging Battle Over Food Rights (September, 2009, Chelsea Green Publishing Co.). He writes a popular blog, The Complete Patient (www.thecompletepatient.com), which over the last two years has aggressively covered the health and regulatory issues surrounding the availability and legality of raw milk, as well as the implementation of the National Animal Identification System (NAIS).

David is also author or co-author of six books on various aspects of business, including the best-selling How to Really Create a Successful Business Plan. He also co-authored the book Inge: A Girl’s Journey Through Nazi Europe, the story of his family’s experiences during the Holocaust, which was selected as a finalist by the Independent Publisher Book Awards for 2005. Prior to his book-writing and entrepreneurship career, he spent nine years as a staff reporter with The Wall Street Journal and seven years as small business editor of the Harvard Business Review. He was also a senior editor of Inc. Magazine.

This article appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of Wise Traditions, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation.


In the Press: Woman Says Raw Milk May Not Have Made Durand Football Team Ill

By Joe Knight, Leader-Telegram staff, December 13, 2014

The raw milk served at a team dinner for the Durand High School football team may not have been the source of the bug that later made people sick, said Diana Reed, whose farm provided the milk. “Some people got sick who did not drink the milk,” she said Saturday.

A total of 38 people associated with the team, including many football players, were sickened from the outbreak tied to the September 18 dinner, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Twenty-six of the illnesses were laboratory confirmed to stem from Campylobacter jejuni, a bacterium that causes severe gastrointestinal problems.

The bacteria can be found in contaminated milk, but also in undercooked meat and poultry.

After interviewing people who attended the dinner, state health officials in late October concluded the common link to people who became ill was that they had drunk the unpasteurized milk. State health officials also tested manure of the cows at the Reed ranch and concluded some of the cows contained the strain of campylobacter that sickened the students.

On Friday, state health officials identified the Reed farm as the source of the milk following an open records inquiry by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

But Reed said there could have been other sources of the bug.

“I discussed it with the epidemiologist in Madison. He gave me some statistics—56 people ate chicken, 38 got sick; 43 people chose to drink milk and 33 got sick,” she said. “They interviewed everyone who was there.”

That leaves five people who did not drink milk, but who still had campylobacter.

She said their bulk tank was tested six days after the outbreak and state officials did not find any contaminating bacteria.

State officials also took manure samples from the intestines of the cows in their herd and found campylobacter, but it is not unusual to find the bacteria in Wisconsin cows, she said.

“You will find it in every cow herd in Wisconsin. It can be 4 to 100 percent on a farm,” she said.

“They are claiming the DNA footprint was the same. . . That particular strain of the Campylobacter jejuni is not only found in cows, it is also found in chicken,” she said.

The important step is to make sure the cow’s udder is clean before beginning milking, Reed said. “We do everything at the dairy farm to keep our milk clean. After all, we drink it,” she said.

Reed said her family has always drunk raw milk, and for seven years she has brought beef, which they also raise, and unpasteurized milk to team dinners.

“I just tried to offer them the best that we had,” she said.

“We’ve had four boys in football in Durand through the last eight years. I’ve lived and breathed Durand football,” she said. “This was the last thing I would ever want to be involved in—making a football team sick,” she said.

Reed said they will continue to ship their milk to a cheese factory, and they will continue to drink raw milk as a family, but it will only be used by her family.

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