By Ron Schmid, ND
Infection with Salmonella species accounts for a substantial portion of food-borne illness in this country, with an estimated million and a half cases and 500 deaths annually. An infective dose of Salmonella requires at least a million organisms. Ground beef is a common and persistent source; USDA regulations allow for up to ten percent of the samples taken at a given plant to contain Salmonella, but these limits are often exceeded. High levels of Salmonella in ground beef indicate high levels of fecal contamination. Meanwhile, known sources of Salmonella are fed to cattle. According to Eric Schlosser in his book Fast Food Nation:
“A study published a few years ago in Preventive Medicine notes that in Arkansas alone, about 3 million pounds of chicken manure were fed to cattle in 1994. According to Dr. Neal D. Barnard, who heads the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, chicken manure may contain dangerous bacteria such as Salmonella and Campylobacter, parasites such as tapeworms and Giardia lamblia, antibiotic residues, arsenic and heavy metals.”
An example of the difficulty USDA officials have in enforcing regulations against the meatpacking industry is provided by the 1999 case of a ground beef plant in Dallas, owned by Supreme Beef Processors, which failed a series of USDA tests for Salmonella. Up to 47 percent of the company’s ground beef contained Salmonella—nearly five times higher than that which USDA regulations allow. Yet the USDA continued to purchase large quantities of meat from Supreme Beef for use in schools. Indeed, Supreme Beef Processors was one of the nation’s largest suppliers to the school meals program, annually providing nearly half of its ground beef. On November 30, 1999, the USDA finally removed inspectors from the company’s plant, shutting it down.
The next day, Supreme Beef sued the USDA in federal court, claiming that Salmonella was a natural organism, not an adulterant, and contending that the USDA should not have removed inspectors from the plant. Federal Judge A. Joe Fish ordered inspectors back into the plant, pending resolution of the lawsuit. The plant shutdown lasted less than one day. Six months later the judge issued a decision, “. . . ruling that the presence of high levels of Salmonella in the plant’s ground beef was not proof that conditions there were ‘unsanitary.’ Fish endorsed one of Supreme Beef’s central arguments: a ground beef processor should not be held responsible for the bacterial levels of meat that could easily have been tainted with Salmonella at a slaughterhouse. The ruling cast doubt on the USDA’s ability to withdraw inspectors from a plant [and thus shut the plant down] where tests revealed excessive levels of fecal contamination. Although Supreme Beef portrayed itself as an innocent victim of forces beyond its control, much of the beef used at the plant had come from its own slaughterhouse in Ladonia, Texas. That slaughterhouse had repeatedly failed USDA tests for Salmonella.”
In contrast, consider the story of raw milk and Salmonella in California. The California State Health Department and several county health departments, most notably those of Los Angeles and San Diego counties, conspired for some 30 years to harass the Alta Dena Dairy, and nearly every other raw milk dairy in the state, and put them out of business.
The Stueve brothers—Ed, Harold, and Elmer—founded Alta Dena in Monrovia in 1945 with 61 milk cows and two bulls. Dr. Francis Pottenger was a regular customer. In 1950 the family purchased a much larger operation in Chino. The dairy became certified for raw milk production in 1953 and grew rapidly. By the 1980s, the dairy milked over 8,000 cows daily and owned 18,000 animals. With 800 employees, Alta Dena was the largest producer-distributor in the nation, selling over 20,000 gallons of certified raw milk daily. Alta Dena products, including raw milk and raw butter, buttermilk, ice cream, kefir and yogurt were sold in health food stores in every state. For over 40 years, Alta Dena proved that safe and healthy raw dairy products could be produced and distributed on a large scale with literally no proven cases caused by their products. This did not deter the various county health officials and the California State Health Department from their campaign to destroy Alta Dena. Eventually, the Department’s chosen weapon would be Salmonella, a weapon they used only after failing with the alleged threat of a number of other diseases to generate fear of raw milk in the public and a costly ongoing legal morass for Alta-Dena.
The first assault occurred in 1965, when a San Diego County health officer named Askew summarily issued an order banning all raw milk in the county, claiming to have found Staphylococcus aureus in Alta Dena milk. While these bacteria can be involved in everything from skin infections to pneumonia, they are ubiquitous in the environment and are carried by about half of the human population. Many pasteurized dairy products contain low levels of S. aureus, the residues of higher levels present before pasteurization. Staph poisoning is usually traced to processed foods such as ham and cream-filled pastries. Although Staph can cause mastitis in cows and staphylococcal poisoning has on occasion been attributed to a wide variety of dairy products in the past, the only four major outbreaks reported in the United States since 1970 have involved either processed butter products or pasteurized 2% chocolate milk.
Illness caused by Staph is brief and intense, with nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and cramps. Acute symptoms last only a few hours, with the patient fully recovered within a day or two. No one had become ill when Alta Dena milk was banned in San Diego County. “The health officer stated publicly that he was going to do away with raw milk in the state of California,” writes William Campbell Douglass in The Milk Book, “if it was the last thing he ever did.”
According to Douglass, health officer Askew was asked, at a hearing of the County Board of Supervisors, whether to his knowledge anyone had ever become sick from drinking certified raw milk in San Diego County. He answered, “No, but it could happen.” The Board urged that he lift the ban, yet he refused to do so. The country’s largest producer-distributor dairy could not sell its raw milk in San Diego County, and the ban remained in effect for three years.
Finally, after a three-year battle, the 4th District Court of Appeals ruled that the health officer had exceeded his authority. Meanwhile, in 1967, the California Medical Society had passed a resolution calling for the pasteurization of all milk in California. Three other counties summarily banned raw milk, but vociferous public opposition succeeded in removal of the bans.
It was in January of 1969 that the Los Angeles County Health Department attacked Alta Dena. The Los Angeles Times announced, with banner headlines based on information supplied by the Health Department, that Alta Dena raw milk was banned with the presumption of contamination by the organisms that cause Q fever. This obscure viral-like disease is caused by the parasite Coxiella burnetti, which is carried in ticks and sometimes in the ruminant animals that ticks infect. The parasite causes no symptoms in the animals; most cases of Q fever occur in farmers and meat factory employees who work in close contact with animals, and the disease appears to be transmitted by inhalation of the parasite. The symptoms are fever, pain and intense headache, and most patients recover fully with two to four weeks of antibiotic treatment.
C. burnetti has been found in milk from cows carrying the parasite, and regular consumers of raw milk sometimes have antibodies to the parasite without showing any evidence of disease. This implies that exposure stimulates the immune system to develop resistance. Two reports in the medical literature have linked raw milk consumption with a few dozen cases of Q fever (one article was published in 1968, a few months before the Los Angeles County charges), but the association remains totally unproven. In fact, in his chapter “Public health concerns,” published in Applied Dairy Microbiology, Theodore Ryser states that “. . . in one study in which contaminated raw milk was ingested by human volunteers illness did not occur.” Other studies showed that the parasite survived the temperatures normally used for pasteurization for most of the twentieth century. On balance, it appears unlikely that Q fever has ever been transmitted by the consumption of raw milk.
No one in Los Angeles County had reported any symptoms of Q fever. Alta Dena defied the LA County Health Board ban, continuing to sell raw milk in the county, and was taken to court. Meanwhile the dairy labeled its raw milk as “pet food, not for human consumption.” Harold Stueve, president of the dairy and the mayor of Monrovia at the time, was arrested for contempt of court. Only when Alta Dena expert witnesses testified that Q fever was caused by inhalation of the parasite and not by consumption of raw milk did prosecutors drop the charges.
A 1966 Los Angeles County Health Department report on Q fever proves the health department’s bias. The report describes seven cases, six of which lived “in or around dairies.” None of the seven drank raw milk. Contact with animals and subsequent airborne spread, the report admitted, was the vector for infection, but claimed that “the most practical solution now available” was the universal pasteurization of all milk.
The California State Health Department led the next attack in 1974 with a statewide ban of Alta Dena’s raw milk, citing the threat of brucellosis. All Alta Dena cows had of course been vaccinated against the disease and were routinely tested as an extra precaution. The ban forced the dairy to go to court once again and to retest the entire herd. No brucellosis was found, and Alta Dena resumed sales of raw milk. But, once again, the Stueves lost thousands of dollars in lawyers’ fees and testing expenses and an untold amount of lost sales due to adverse publicity.
Having failed to show that Alta Dena raw milk had ever caused any of the classic milk-borne illnesses, the state zeroed in on Salmonella. In the mid-1970s the state made numerous claims that Salmonella contaminated raw milk produced by Alta Dena and other California raw milk dairies. In 1978, the Stueve brothers led California raw milk producers in seeking a California state Senate bill requiring the State Health Department to oversee raw dairy foods in a manner similar to that of other food products. On June 4th, a week before the Senate bill was to come up for debate, a state laboratory claimed to have found Salmonella in Alta Dena milk.
The State Health Department delayed five days in releasing the information, while the public bought and consumed the milk—milk the state would subsequently declare was a public health hazard. Then on June 9th, two days before the Senate debate was to begin, the Department notified the press of the alleged contamination, claiming that an epidemic of Salmonella poisoning was imminent.
The only epidemic was an outbreak of inflammatory news reports. From San Rafael to Sacramento, from Ventura to Vallejo, raw milk producers stood accused: “Raw Milk Warning,” “Some Raw Milk Found to be Contaminated,” “Contaminated Raw Milk Ordered Off Shelves.” Radio announcements warned the public not to drink raw milk from Alta Dena dairy. No one got sick, but in the hysteria the Senate bill failed.
A few days later, after reviewing relevant documents, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner accused California State Health Department officials of falsifying bacterial reports in order to defeat the Senate bill. Two independent laboratories—one that did testing for the Los Angeles County Medical Milk Commission, and the other that did considerable testing for the state—returned negative results for Salmonella. The Health Department laboratory had either falsified its results, or the testing methods had been so sloppy that the milk samples were contaminated during the testing procedures. The Herald Examiner article hinted at a conspiracy among members of the State Health Department to eliminate raw dairy products.
Other State Health Department tactics bolstered the conspiracy charge. In several instances, products for which there was no evidence of contamination at all—falsified, inaccurate, or otherwise—were destroyed. Officials forced a food store manager to pour 90 gallons of certified raw milk down a toilet. Health officers punched holes in Alta Dena raw cheese, and poured Chlorox over it. The Department leaked a “staff report” to New Age, a widely read California magazine, which published excerpts in August 1978. “Evidence points to a continuing health hazard to the public consuming Alta Dena’s raw certified milk,” reported New Age, and quoted a medical epidemiologist who claimed that Alta Dena raw milk was killing cancer patients.
The epidemiologist and two of his colleagues, both of whom worked with the California State Health Department, published a report in the British Medical Journal stating that 22 patients, mostly with leukemias and lymphomas, had died between 1971 and 1975, sometime after being “exposed” to Alta Dena raw milk. Publication in a foreign journal made the authors relatively immune to lawsuits. Since then, the article has been widely quoted as scientific fact in American journals.
The governor’s office in California received over 17,000 letters, telegrams and phone calls in defense of Alta Dena within two months of the Herald Examiner report. The furor died down, but the number of letters alone grew to over 50,000. The State Health Department was undeterred, repeating unconfirmed allegations of Salmonella contamination later in 1978 and again in 1979. Both times, newspapers generated the usual scare headlines: “Poisoned Milk Recalled,” “State Issues Warning About Alta Dena Milk,” “Tainted Milk Ordered Off Market Shelves.” Again the allegations were false, no one got sick and Alta Dena carried on. But one by one, other raw milk producers in the state went out of business.
In 1983, Nevada state inspectors seized Alta Dena raw milk from a health food store and claimed it contained Salmonella. The milk was 21 days old, past its expiration date. Four different labs, including the California State Health Department lab and one county lab, subsequently analyzed the milk and found no Salmonella. The FDA spent three days investigating the Alta Dena Dairy and found nothing of importance. The California State Health Department nevertheless issued warnings to the people of California not to drink Alta Dena raw milk, or even give it to their pets.
Also in 1983, the report describing five serious Salmonella cases at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in San Diego was published. Three of the five patients were regular consumers of Alta Dena raw milk, and one, a patient with advanced cancer who had been receiving extensive chemotherapy, died with an acute Salmonella infection. It is certainly possible that Alta Dena raw milk was the carrier of the Salmonella that infected this woman. The dairy did its best to produce a large volume of raw milk for the people of California, but it was not a pasture-based dairy. Mistakes were undoubtedly occasionally made, and milk may have occasionally been contaminated with Salmonella or other pathogens. Since the State Health Department reports cannot be trusted, it is impossible to know how often that may have occurred. But to expect or demand perfection from any dairy would be ludicrous, and any raw food may on occasion carry pathogenic organisms that may precipitate illness in susceptible individuals. The point is that people need and have a right to choose carefully produced raw dairy products despite the fact that contamination may occasionally occur. The proper role of the public health authorities is to help producers make the best possible products and ensure that any contamination is minimal, and then to take proper steps to protect the public when and if contamination occurs. For proponents of raw milk to claim that problems never occur is to avoid reality and play into the hands of bureaucrats who would seize upon rare and isolated problems as an excuse to condemn all raw milk.
For that is exactly what the California State Health Department did. Ignoring all the evidence on the benefits of raw milk and the desire of many people to consume it, the Department used the possibility of occasional Salmonella contamination as an excuse to wage a vendetta against Alta Dena and California’s other raw milk producers.
In 1984, an article in Vogue headlined “A Raw Milk Warning: A New and Dangerous Health Fad” featured statistics published in the newsletter of an organization called California Council Against Health Frauds. The report claimed that raw milk drinkers were at increased risk of Salmonella infection, “which can result in high fevers and bloody diarrhea.” This is extremely rare for most Salmonella infections. People who drink raw milk are 118 times more at risk, said the article. This exaggeration was obtained by manipulating figures originally published in 1944.
In 1991, Consumers Union of the United States joined with California’s conventional dairy producers to file suit against Alta Dena Dairy for advertising, allegedly falsely, that raw milk was healthful and pasteurized was not. The State Health Department concurrently claimed raw milk products were a public health hazard and prohibited Alta Dena from distributing and selling its raw milk pending settlement of the Consumers Union suit. In 1992, the court ruled that Alta Dena’s health claims were illegal and ordered all raw milk sold in California to carry a government warning. The Stueves then sold Alta Dena Dairy, but continued to produce and distribute raw dairy products under the Stueve’s Natural label.
In 1997, John Leedom, MD, one of the six members of the Los Angeles County Medical Milk Commission, publicly stated that not only licensed grade A raw milk but also certified raw milk should be banned in Los Angeles County. Alta Dena produced licensed grade A raw milk that was also certified by the Commission; California’s other licensed grade A raw milk producers were not certified. Three other commissioners sided with Leedom. According to James Privitera, MD, one of the two commissioners who favored keeping raw milk available, the majority implemented regulations so restrictive and prejudicial that it became impossible for raw milk producers to stay in business. Alta Dena’s new owners at that point stopped selling raw milk, and Stueve’s Natural raw milk has not been available since May 1999.
A final warning: if those pushing compulsory pasteurization, food irradiation and other treatments of all raw foods have their way, the end result will be the sterilization of the entire food supply—of course in the name of safety and consumer protection. Do not underestimate the determination of the individuals and corporations that would like this to happen, or their appetite for the billions of dollars it would bring them.
It seems to me that the most apt description of this drive to make compulsory the complete industrialization of the food supply is fascism. My dictionary lists as one of the meanings of fascism “any system of extreme authoritarian views.” What could be more authoritarian than laws compelling the people of a state or nation to eat only the dead food that corporations serve us? Stopping this fascist drive by elements in our government and the corporations they serve is the major challenge of this century. It is not an impossible task; in fact, it is one in which every individual can participate simply by supporting local farms and drinking raw milk.
Excerpted from The Untold Story of Milk by Ron Schmid, ND, available October 2003, NewTrends Publishing, Inc., (877) 707-1776, www.newtrendspublishing.com. Large discounts for one case or more are available for prepaid advance orders. For details, contact Sally Fallon at email@example.com .
This article appeared in the Fall 2003 edition of Wise Traditions, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation.