By Jackie Cleary
By now, many of you have watched the Harvard Food Law Society’s raw milk debate (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iLRdihFi6gw). The debate was thought provoking and informative but really just a teaser—the debate could have gone on for hours and provided a lot more information. You may have noticed the small but significant mention by attorney Fred Pritzker of Adam Dean, the owner of Pasture Maid Creamery in New Castle, Pennsylvania.
Adam Dean is the farmer who produced the raw milk purchased by Mr. Orchard, the man paralyzed by Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an auto-immune disorder of somewhat mysterious and varied origins, campylobacter infection being one possible cause. If you have no knowledge of the background story, Mr. Orchard’s misfortune is hard to forget and seems to present the worst-case illustration of the potential dangers of raw milk. However, Mr. Pritzker only shared the super-abbreviated one-sided version, trimmed even more to illustrate his point better. What Mr. Pritzker did not tell the audience was the fact that the Dean family, dairymen since 1867, proudly run a professional and sanitary dairy. The Deans are known by their peers for running one of the highest quality dairies in the area.
Fred Pritzker stated that Pasture Maid Creamery was named in two pathogen outbreaks. And this statement is basically true. However, the situation looks very different from the one Mr. Pritzker painted when the facts are known. The first 2008 outbreak was unsubstantiated and Pasture Maid Creamery’s raw milk license was restored promptly because their milk samples never showed the presence of campylobacter. But that didn’t stop the state from issuing a powerfully worded public warning campaign about the dangers of consuming Pasture Maid Creamery’s milk. At Adam Dean’s insistence, after the testing was inconclusive, a small retraction was printed—tiny compensation for the loss of income and expenses suffered by the dairy. The second incident, which involved Mr. Orchard, occurred in March 2010. After being notified of Mr. Orchard’s hospitalization and the possibility of raw milk from Pasture Maid Creamery as a possible cause, three samples of Pasture Maid Creamery’s milk were collected on three different dates by Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture inspectors.
The typical testing procedure works like this: milk is drawn and split into two sealed containers. Half is sent to the Pennsylvania State laboratory by the inspector; the other half is left for the dairy so they may order independent tests from an outside laboratory. In this case, all of the samples were collected and split as usual—except the single sample that tested positive for campylobacter. The inspector failed to leave a split of that particular sample for Pasture Maid Creamery to send to an independent lab.
- The first of the milk samples was collected immediately upon hearing of Mr. Orchard’s illness. That sample was properly split and results were negative (passing).
- Fifteen days later, the state came to collect the second, non-split sample that tested positive for campylobacter.
- Four days following collection of the positive non-split sample, Adam Dean took his own sample to an independent lab. Results were again negative (passing).
- The state’s third sample, properly split, was collected five or six days after Adam Dean’s independent test and once again was negative (passing).
Meanwhile, Mr. Orchard continues to suffer as does the Dean family. Pasture Maid Creamery was selling raw milk in four Pittsburgh stores until his raw milk license was revoked. Now those same stores won’t even carry his low-temperature, non-homogenized milk. Legal bills are astronomical and the fight to continue the dairy required purchasing an expensive pasteurizer to keep their bottling operation running. Never mind the fact that this is an unbelievably tumultuous time for any family-sized dairy. Most small dairies are struggling to keep their heads above water with our current wildly fluctuating grain and fuel prices. Even without the additional financial liability of a lengthy and expensive legal nightmare, the best dairies are finding their federally set milk price to be less than the cost of producing the milk. But the Deans are not giving up the fight to keep the farm in business. Lab tests have demonstrated again and again no presence of campylobacter in their milk. The dairy maintains a proactive testing practice and their lab results show Pasture Maid Creamery has been in compliance with the stricter standards required to hold a raw milk license in Pennsylvania all along. What more can any business be expected to be accountable for? This case is still open, and will likely drag on. Cases like this do not often end up in court, but instead are commonly settled at the preference of insurance companies.
And, there are still more questions than answers. If the one unsplit milk sample from the Orchard home did in fact contain campylobacter, how does anyone know whether the milk had been handled properly after leaving the dairy? And if the sample didn’t have campylobacter? The snail-like pace of the proceeding has made it impossible to do any real investigative work to identify other possible causes of Mr. Orchard’s illness. In addition, due process translates into a ridiculously long time getting the state to release pertinent evidence to Pasture Maid Creamery. Three very specific items of information were requested by Adam Dean at the time of the initial interview of the Orchard family by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture representatives:
- A split of the milk sample from the Orchard Home for independent laboratory testing.
- The sell-by date for that milk.
- Information on where the milk was purchased.
Today, two years later, the milk sample will never be possible and the rest of the very basic information has only recently been formally shared with Mr. Dean. If you are a diligent, protocol- following business called upon to defend yourself, how can you do so without being told the specific details of your alleged infraction? Meanwhile, Mr. Orchard’s misfortune may just as easily have been caused by one of many other sources. An undercooked burger or egg, well water commonplace in the area, or something altogether different. Sadly, once the consumption of raw milk by Mr. Orchard was established, even without being confirmed by test results, officials apparently felt they had all the answers they needed and further investigation was dropped. Even though there were as many as forty other illnesses reported in the area during the same time period and most of those cases had not consumed unpasteurized milk.
It is hard to hear either side of this sad tale and be unmoved by the current convoluted state of our dairy industry and our food regulatory systems. These legal proceedings are serving neither side, and seem to be perpetuating misinformation and lack of clarity. The only certain way a dairy can avoid involvement in such a catastrophe is by never selling directly to the public and especially never selling raw milk, licensed or unlicensed. This is unappealing for many dairy owners who take pride in the quality and healthfulness of their milk. And, as a consumer, the only surefire way to avoid a potential illness is to consume nothing. I haven’t quite figured out how to manage that, but I’ll be sure to let you know if I ever do!
Jackie Cleary is a cook and writer living on a small farm in Western Pennsylvania. Ever fascinated with local, hand crafted food and the artisans who make it, Jackie’s own adventures in food and farming are a constant lesson in sustainability and humility. And deliciousness. You can visit Jackie and her herd of old-fashioned Milking Devon cattle at AuburnMeadowFarm.com.