Bogus Accusations that Raw Milk Caused Illness

By Pete Kennedy, Esq.

As demand for raw milk has increased, greater numbers of people in recent years have ignored the warnings of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), state public health agencies and their lackeys in the mainstream media about the health risks of consuming the product.

With more states legalizing raw milk sales and raw milk access increasing, the opposition has resorted more to shoddy science, abandonment of due diligence in investigations, and the loss of whatever integrity it has left in trying to blame foodborne illness on raw milk consumption. Two great examples of this have occurred in recent months regarding foodborne illness outbreaks allegedly caused by raw milk consumption in West Virginia and a “multi-state” outbreak attributed to the consumption of raw milk products produced by the Pennsylvania-based dairy Miller’s Organic Farm.

On March 3, 2016, West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin signed into law a bill that legalized raw milk distribution through herdshare agreements. The new law was a huge setback for the raw milk opposition; West Virginia previously had the most draconian laws in the country on the books, prohibiting the sales of raw milk for both human and pet consumption as well as banning herdshares. Shortly after Tomblin signed the bill, some West Virginia legislators celebrated by drinking raw milk; subsequently, several of those legislators became sick and that’s when the media went into overdrive.

Reports on the legislators’ illness were not only circulated around the state but also nationally. Media such as The Today Show and MSNBC carried the story, describing the irony of how legislators who had just voted to legalize a product were now sick from consumption of it. The story was an effective propaganda tool discouraging legislators in other states from voting for pending raw milk legislation; raw milk supporters were worried about the story killing bills they were working on.

The problem was that none of the media reporting on the illnesses had bothered to check the evidence on the source of the outbreak. If they had, they would have learned that the stomach flu was going through the legislature and capitol city. Legislators who did not drink the milk were getting sick, and some even became ill before the celebration took place. One delegate who did drink raw milk and was hospitalized was told it was a stomach virus. About a month after the media headlines blaring that raw milk caused an illness outbreak, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources issued a press release on its investigation into the illnesses stating, “Three ill persons went to an urgent care or emergency room. Based on record review, three patients reported raw milk consumption. No ill persons required overnight hospitalization. No milk was available for testing. Because of the limitations of this investigation, no conclusions can be drawn about the extent of illness, etiologic agent, or the mode of transmission.”1

Kelli Sobonya of the West Virginia House of Delegates summed up the reaction to the media’s behavior: “People I speak with are disappointed with the media  doing a report on a rumor. Had they dug deep enough they would have learned of the numerous legislators who were victims of the stomach virus…No wonder people are tuning the news out and no longer tuning in. Universities should start re-emphasizing responsible journalism in their curriculum.”2

Shortly after the unfounded accusations in West Virginia, CDC set a new low for credibility by publishing a report claiming that Miller’s Organic Farm of Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania was responsible for a death in Florida and an illness in California from the consumption of Miller’s raw milk. The CDC report stated, “In November 2015, samples of raw chocolate milk were collected from a raw milk conference held in Anaheim, California (the conference was actually the Weston A. Price Foundation conference where local health officials seized raw dairy products from Miller’s). The raw chocolate milk was produced by Miller’s Organic Farm. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) isolated listeria from the raw chocolate milk and conducted WGS (whole genome sequencing) testing on the isolate to get more genetic information about the bacteria. On January 29, 2016, FDA informed CDC that WGS determined that the listeria bacteria from the raw chocolate milk was closely related genetically to listeria bacteria from two people in two states who got sick in 2014, one from California and one from Florida.”3 The Florida victim was seventy-three years old and the California individual was eighty-one.

Journalist David Gumpert and activist Liz Reitzig did some great investigative work exposing the weakness and lack of integrity in the CDC’s claim.4 The seventy-three-year-old who died, Christa Rittel, had advanced cancer and was undergoing intensive chemotherapy; she also had gastrointestinal pain. Two or three weeks after suffering a stroke in North Carolina, she had come to Florida to stay with her son’s sister-in-law, Peggy Stevenson. Rittel had listeria in her system at the time of her death, but according to Stevenson, who is a member of a private association that gets food from Miller’s, she never drank any raw milk before passing away. Stevenson told Gumpert that she planned to write CDC expressing outrage on how the agency used Rittel’s death to further its anti-raw milk agenda.

According to Gumpert,5 the California individual was a man who consumed raw buttermilk; CDC obtained information on the illness (a three-week bout with diarrhea) from the man’s physician. The man is diabetic, blind and has a pacemaker; his son-in-law consumed raw buttermilk without any problem. The two cases of listeriosis were identified by state public health agencies based on laboratory tests of the National PulseNet database. According to CDC, “PulseNet performs DNA fingerprinting on listeria bacteria isolated from ill people by using techniques called pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) and whole genome sequencing (WGS). CDC PulseNet manages a national database of these DNA fingerprints to identify possible outbreaks.”6

A match was made to the genetic characteristics of the pathogen found in the two individuals and the samples of the chocolate milk. A CDC official told Gumpert that the isolates from the “raw milk product” were “very similar” to the patient isolates.6 According to non-CDC experts the journalist spoke with, “very similar” is not the same thing as an exact match. The experts identify the genetic similarities visually, a rough science, and similarities are “common in dozens or even hundreds of foods” according to one expert Gumpert spoke with. Adding to the skepticism is the fact that CDC records show no attribution of listeriosis to fluid raw milk consumption going back to at least 1972.

Gumpert’s detective work showing the glaring weaknesses in the CDC report has not staved off further government investigation of Miller’s Organic Farm and its owner Amos Miller. Both the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture have been on the farm since the report was published, and the U.S. Department of Justice is threatening legal action if Miller does not let USDA conduct a full inspection of his facility.

1. David Gumpert. Which Mainstream Media Will Update W.VA Raw Milk Illness Stories?; April 13, 2016.
2. John Moody. Media Mangles Raw Milk in West Virginia.; March 17, 2016.
3. CDC. Multistate Outbreak of Listeriosis Linked to Raw Milk Produced by Miller’s Organic Farm in Pennsylvania. March 18, 2016.
4. David Gumpert and Liz Reitzig. CDC Misconduct? Raw Milk “Death” Victim Was Treated for Advanced Cancer.; March 23, 2016.
5. Behind CDC’s Raw Milk Probe: More Doubts about California Illness.; May 1, 2016.
6. David Gumpert. New CDC Raw Milk Mystery: Will Real CA Listeriosis “Victim” Please Stand Up.; March 31, 2016.

This article was first published in the Summer 2016 issue of Wise Traditions, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation.

Pete Kennedy

Pete Kennedy is a Florida attorney who has worked on issues governing raw milk production and distribution since 2004. He compiled a summary of raw milk laws in each of the fifty states and is currently a consultant for WAPF on, among other things, policies and laws regarding raw milk. Pete was a founding board member of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund (FTCLDF) and served as vice president and then president for many years. He has consulted on and drafted raw milk, cottage foods, and food sovereignty legislation; drafted and reviewed herdshare agreements; worked on embargo, seizure, and recall cases involving raw dairy products; worked on foodborne illness outbreaks attributed to raw milk consumption; handled issues involving on-farm slaughter, custom meat, and poultry processing as well as problems with zoning and local ordinances.