By Pete Kennedy, Esq.
The demand for raw milk has continued to increase rapidly. Coverage in the media (both the The Washington Post and The New York Times ran stories on raw milk in August) and growing dissatisfaction with the industrial food system have been contributing factors. The growth in raw milk consumption has not escaped the attention of government officials. State and federal agencies have responded to this growth in demand by carrying out a campaign of fear in an attempt to convince the public that raw milk is dangerous to health. Much of the effort to instill fear has centered on the pathogen listeria monocytogenes.
Within the past year, eleven dairies selling raw milk (six in New York, five in Pennsylvania) and one dairy in California selling raw cream had their sales suspended by the state for positive tests for Listeria monocytogenes (L-mono). In none of the twelve cases did anyone become sick, but in each case a press release was issued informing the public that the dairy’s milk (or cream) had tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes and that those who had purchased the milk (or cream) should throw it away. The press releases typically warned that L-mono can cause “a serious and sometimes fatal disease called Listeriosis in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems” (FDA News, September 21, 2007—see Press Releases at www.fda.gov). Yet records from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), released in May 2007 in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), disclosed not one case of illness caused by Listeria monocytogenes in raw milk or cream between 1971 and 2005. FDA’s own documents reflect the same findings. For years the agency has published the FDA Food Code, model regulations for the retail sector of the food industry. A majority of the states have adopted all or part of the Food Code. In Annex 4 of the FDA Food Code there is a table on “selected biological hazards” found at retail and foods associated with those hazards. Raw milk is listed as being a food associated with Campylobacter jejuni, Salmonella spp., and E. coli O157:H7 but not with Listeria monocytogenes. The Listeria scare is groundless. This is little consolation for the twelve farms; each lost at least two weeks of sales due to the suspensions. Fortunately, there have been no more raw dairy Listeria “events” since early October. While some of these farms may have had minute amounts of listeria in the milk, the zero-tolerance policy is unfair to raw milk producers and does not meaningfully protect the public.