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Food Safety: Raw Milk

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Food Safety: Raw Milk

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California's efforts to regulate raw milk dairy products have been controversial, pitting public health advocates against passionate raw food devotees. This story details the aftermath of the first enforcement of new state regulations on raw milk products.

Raw Milk Law Enforced for the First Time
Raw cream from Fresno dairy banned
San Jose Mercury News
Thursday, March 6, 2008

When California's raw milk dairies learned about new legislation tightening safety standards for their unpasteurized milk and cream, they - alongside passionate raw milk devotees - bitterly lobbied against mandates they believed would destroy their business.

Now their fears are starting to be realized.

State agriculture officials have temporarily banned the sale of raw cream from the Organic Pastures dairy in Fresno, citing bacteria levels of up to 150 times the legal limit. They also have warned a Watsonville dairy, Claravale Farm, that it faces a similar ban if its raw skim milk or raw cream fails another inspection.

The ban marks the state's first enforcement of the controversial raw milk law that took effect Jan. 1. And it could reignite last year's fierce political and legal battles over its requirement that raw milk meet the same safety standards as pasteurized milk.

Mark McAfee, Organic Pastures' founder and owner, along with Claravale Farm, is suing to overturn the law. He says the action will help propel his lawsuit through the courts now that he is facing economic losses.

"I was actually looking forward to this day," McAfee said. "We're losing $10,000 a week on cream we can't sell."

Organic Pastures' other products, including skim and whole raw milk, aren't included in the sales ban and may still be sold at Whole Foods and other stores, said Steve Lyle, a spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Raw cream already in stores also is not affected by the regulatory action and may remain on the shelves.

The sales ban on Organic Pastures' raw cream will last until two new cream samples tested within the same week meet state standards. McAfee said those tests were conducted on Sunday and Monday and that he's expecting results soon.

The cream that could not be sold is being made into butter to be sold at stores like Whole Foods, which carries Organic Pastures products, McAfee said.

Although California boasts the nation's largest raw milk production and Organic Pastures is believed to be the nation's largest raw milk dairy, actual sales are small compared with the state's massive dairy industry.

Under the new state law, to avoid a sales ban raw milk dairies must pass three of every five inspections of samples of their milk products, including whole milk, skim milk, cream and colostrum, a type of milk produced by cows for newborn calves.

Before Jan. 1, raw milk was tested for dangerous bacteria such as salmonella, but dairies were not required to provide counts of other classes of bacteria.

Unlike pasteurized milk, raw milk is not heat-treated to kill bacteria that can cause disease, although it's routinely tested for certain disease-causing bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella.

Raw milk devotees consider it a healthy elixir, touting its ability to ease allergies, lactose intolerance and digestive disorders among other health problems. Public health experts, however, argue that raw milk is far more likely than the pasteurized kind to make people sick.

From 1998 to 2005, raw milk and cheese were implicated in 39 disease outbreaks nationwide that sickened 831 adults and children, hospitalized 66 and killed one, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Mark Barbieri, manager of the Whole Foods supermarket in Campbell, said the temporary ban on Organic Pastures cream would not scare him away from his raw milk habit. He said he simply loves the taste and has confidence that the state agriculture department is diligently inspecting raw milk dairies.

"It's like drinking ice cream," said Barbieri, who favors Claravale Farm milk. "It's so sweet."

California's new raw milk safety standards allow no more than 10 coliform bacteria per milliliter, the same requirement for pasteurized milk.

Coliform bacteria include those that aid digestion as well as those that cause disease. Their presence is not necessarily a predictor of food-borne illness, but high levels can indicate a sanitation problem, said dairy scientist John Bruhn, professor emeritus at the University of California-Davis' Department of Food Science and Technology.

In one raw cream sample taken from Organic Pastures on Feb. 6, the overall bacteria count was 250,000 per gram, with coliform bacteria numbering 1,500 per gram - which Bruhn suggested could indicate a sanitation problem at the dairy. Milk destined for pasteurization, he said, should have less than 50,000 total bacteria per milliliter or gram.

Debate over standards

Organic Pastures and Claravale Farm argued that the standard is impossible to meet. But Lyle, the agriculture department spokesman, said previous tests at both dairies last year suggested that the standard is attainable.

"The West is filled with states that have similar coliform standards, including Washington, which has a vibrant raw milk industry," Lyle said. "We think it's a reasonable limit."

Organic Pastures in particular has been beset by potentially harmful bacteria in its raw milk in recent years.

In 2006, five children were infected with E. coli bacteria linked to Organic Pastures' raw milk. Some suffered bloody diarrhea; others, kidney failure. The dairy is now facing lawsuits from two families affected by the outbreak.

The dairy's raw cream was recalled in September 2007 after listeria was found in a sample, although no illnesses were reported. Then, in November and December, state public health officials investigated reports of a campylobacter bacterial outbreak that sickened five people who drank Organic Pastures raw milk.

"The link appears suspicious, but it's just not something we can prove," said state epidemiologist Dr. Gil Chavez. "Our message still is that consuming raw milk carries a risk."

Bruhn wonders whether repeated reports of sales bans or recalls over potentially harmful raw milk may cause consumers to rethink their raw milk habits.

If the dairies are "having more trouble than success, then raw milk drinkers might develop doubts," Bruhn said. "Whether that will lead them to change their purchasing habits, I don't know. I know a lot of them are very dedicated to the product regardless of what the state does or says."

Organic Pastures' McAfee couldn't agree more.

"I invite (the agriculture department) to keep on sticking me in the ribs because it keeps increasing our sales," he said. "It stirs up the grass roots."

Photo credit: Kristen Taylor via Flickr