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Why Did Whole Foods Stop Selling Raw Milk?

Opinion

Why did Whole Foods stop selling raw milk in California, Washington, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut?

In January, I wrote “Risky Business – Why would a retailer like Whole Foods sell Raw Milk?” – perhaps Whole Foods actually paid attention?  In the last two years I have spoken at various conferences of the financial risks–specifically to retailers and insurers–of selling raw milk.  Over the weekend Whole Foods stopped raw milk sales in California, Washington, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut.   Insurers are leaving the market.  Why did they do it?

Here are the reasons: over the past several years, I have represented several families of children whose parents purchased raw milk directly from the farmer. The children came away with E. coli O157:H7 bacteria-mediated Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, months of hospitalization, hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical expenses, and millions of dollars in risk of future complications, including end stage renal disease and the need for multiple kidney transplants.

I also presently represent two people (one child and one adult) from Connecticut who consumed raw milk purchased at a Whole Foods. The milk was contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. Both developed Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome. Once again, hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical expenses have been incurred. One victim, a twenty-eight year old mother, will likely require a kidney transplant–again, at a multiple million-dollar cost.

Now for the risky part to retailers and insurers:  most, if not all, raw milk farmers have limited insurance and very few assets that are not owned solely by the bank.  If they face litigation for poisoning a customer, bankruptcy is always an option and what insurance is available is paid.

But, what about the risk to the retailer? True, in selling raw milk they are “only” selling a product that has a history of sickening consumers – they did not manufacture it.

So, is a retailer, like Whole Foods, liable for paying millions of dollars to its customers if they are sickened by raw milk? The short answer is–Hell yes!  The reality in most states is that the entire “chain of distribution,” whether you are a manufacturer (a farm is) or retailer, you are responsible if a product (raw milk is a product) causes harm.  That means the farmer, the shipper, and the retailer will be responsible (morally and legally) to the consumer for all damages caused by the product. It is true that, depending on the state; a court may apportion damages between various members of the “chain.”

However, and this is key, if the original manufacturer (the farmer in this instance) is bankrupt or has limited assets (including insurance), the retailer may be left “holding the bag”–partially empty–that the retailer will need to fill.  By way of example, assume that raw milk sold at a Whole Foods sickens five people.  Two develop Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome. Assume further that the farm has only one million dollars in insurance and limited assets. Also assume that the total value of all cases (settlement or verdict) is ten million dollars. Guess who pays the nine?

So, why did they do it?  They sold it because of money and they stopped selling it because of money.

Or, perhaps Whole Foods was paying attention to my speech at the AVMA:

© Food Safety News
  • http://www.marlerblog.com bill marler

    A bit more information on the Connecticut Outbreak – Margot and Kalee where part of the same E. coli O157:NM Outbreak. The milk they consumed was purchased at Whole Foods.
    Margot Standish was seven years old in June 2008, when she became infected with E. coli O157:NM as the result of consumption of raw milk. Her symptoms began in late June, with diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal cramps. Her regular physician treated Margot over the period of more than a week, but her condition began to deteriorate, and she was admitted to the hospital on July 8. Laboratory tests conducted that day provided evidence that Margot had been suffering from hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). Thankfully, Margot’s renal insufficiency did not deepen to the point that dialysis was required. She remained hospitalized through July 14. Medical bills exceeded $30,000. As a result of her HUS, Margot will need to have her renal function monitored regularly for the rest of her life.
    Kalee Prue, a 27-year-old mother of one, became infected with E. coli O157:NM in June 2008, as the result of consumption of raw milk. Her symptoms began in early July, and intensified for several days. On two occasions, Kalee sought treatment in the emergency room. On July 12, it became apparent that she was developing hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). She was then admitted to the hospital on July 13. Kalee’s renal failure was complete and prolonged, and she required plasmapharesis from July 13 through August 11. Severe anemia necessitated repeated transfusions with packed red blood cells as well. By the time she was released from the hospital on August 14, she had incurred over $230,000 in medical bills. Kalee has not recovered full renal function. She is at severe risk for long-term renal complications, including end stage renal disease (ESRD), dialysis, and transplant.

  • Larry Andrew

    Money….the bottom line is the fundamental…bottom line….when decisions regarding ingredients are made. From top management to first line supervisor, decisions are made daily to purchase ingredients or to avoid certain production processes based on lowest cost rather than quality and food safety. How can we regulate natural human tendencies to make company and shareholder profits a higher priority than food safety in the daily production decision-making process? The only way I can think of is to strengthen criminal sanctions and increase civil penalties to the point that those making such decisions will routinely consider such sanctions as much a part of the “bottom line” results as profit.

  • Cindy Bradley

    My local Farmers Market allows vendors to sell raw milk for “consumption by pets.” Does this disclaimer shield the market from liability if a human is sickened by the milk?

  • C L Rose

    How many people have died from contaminated meat?
    Raw spinach?
    Cigarettes?
    Alcohol?
    yet these substances are still sold freely. . .
    So what is it EXACTLY about unpasturized milk?

  • DB

    Are the direct-from-farmer purchases relevant to Whole Foods?
    Question on direct-from-farmer case:
    Did strain match between ill people match unopened milk from same farmer source?
    The reason I ask is because people can pick up E. coli from contact with water, animals or their feces.
    http://infectious-diseases.jwatch.org/cgi/content/citation/2003/1212/10
    Since the milk was bought from the farm, maybe consumers’ hands were not washed prior to opening and handling milk and that is what contaminated the milk? In that case, I would not say that the milk is responsible for the illness and the problem would not even be an issue for Whole Foods or any other retailer.
    Regarding the ongoing case with Whole Foods, I would want it proved that the ill person could not have encountered the same strain from another source besides the milk even if it contained the strain in question. (Correct me if I read the health dept. report wrong, but I think it did NOT find E. coli in the Whole Foods milk itself.)
    The reason is that I would wonder why only one or two people got so ill, when many would have been exposed to the retail milk. I would be a tough sell on this if I were on a jury.
    I do think that all raw milk products should divulge that there is a statistically greater risk of bacterial contamination in raw milk than in pasteurized, (sounds like though the farm-direct milk had a disclosure sign at POS, the labels were not within guidelines), and that risk could result in serious illness or death. But we take risks like this every time we drive, or even cross a street. When we walk in a park frequented by waterfowl, we risk disease, also.
    Many sports that children play are very high risk, in my opinion. If parents allow their children to engage in those sports, they should bear the costs of injury and disability from those sports injuries themselves. I feel the same about properly labeled raw milk.

  • michael

    something doesn’t smell right about this blanket move across all farms regarding one product?
    up to now, if a particular plant, farm or product had issues, then that problem was addressed directly eg. contaminated beef get’s recalled or bad spinach etc. rather than to pull all beef or all bagged spinach henceforth.
    i guess i’ll give up dairy until i find a new store to go to.

  • Matthew Roy

    This is about personal choice. You think raw milk is dangerous? Don’t drink it.
    I have drank raw milk every day of my life and I rarely get sick.
    If Raw milk is in demand by informed customers, then they have an obligation to meet that demand.
    Cigarettes bother you? Don’t smoke.
    Milk bothers you. Avoid it.

  • Matt Jaqua

    If an adult wants to consume raw milk, fine. They should be allowed to assess the risk and choose for themselves. Feeding raw milk to children is a completely different story. Children rely on their parents to protect them from avoidable risk. Would you serve your child raw meat, alcohol or cigarettes?

  • http://www.foodsafetynews.com Deena Sotto

    I agree with DB. The Raw milk producers in Whole Foods have websites you can go to and look at bacteria count. It seems the article above is incomplete. Hopefully consumers who end up sick from the E-coli, have traced it back to the specific raw product.
    My question has always been, me being a customer at Whole Foods Market and questioning ‘their’ practices in handling dairy and cold items. Some things don’t look right outside in the hot sun. And their is human error.

  • http://www.foodsafetynews.com Deena Sotto

    I agree with DB. The Raw milk producers in Whole Foods have websites you can go to and look at bacteria count. It seems the article above is incomplete. Hopefully consumers who end up sick from the E-coli, have traced it back to the specific raw product.
    My question has always been, me being a customer at Whole Foods Market and questioning ‘their’ practices in handling dairy and cold items. Some things don’t look right outside in the hot sun. And their is human error.

  • daris5150

    I think this comment posted by C L Rose bears repeating – 1x for every dollar used to treat the illnesses caused by the products mentioned below —
    How many people have died from contaminated meat?
    Raw spinach?
    Cigarettes?
    Alcohol?
    yet these substances are still sold freely. . .
    So what is it EXACTLY about unpasturized milk?

  • Karla

    I was raised on raw milk and never suffered a single day’s ill health. I have however, been involved in 4 car accidents, suffering injuries ranging from mild to severe. My car is still legal. I also smoked 20 cigarettes a day for 20 years before finally kicking the habit. I suffered chronic bronchitis as a result. Cigarettes are still legal. Hundreds of thousands of people suffer from alcohol related illness. Alcohol is still legal.
    The consumption of raw milk should be a choice just as much as alcohol or tobacco or McDonalds or anything else potentially harmful that we consume.
    Didn’t the US have an outbreak of E Coli on vegetables? VEGETABLES! Should they be banned too?
    Keep your hands off my milk! Time to get things into perspective.

  • CCQ

    For those of you that still want to drink your RAW milk, Organic Pastures, which is possibly the only true Raw Milk that Whole Foods carried is still available at other stores, All you have to do is look on their website (Organic Pastures) and i believe you can put in your zip code and radius and it will tell you where their milk is sold.

  • Elanne Kresser

    Perhaps you should start a campaign against selling spinach, fish, coldcuts and hotdogs? Much of the time when someone who gets sick after drinking raw milk, raw milk is automatically blamed as the culprit when in fact it turns out to have been fish, or hotdogs or spinach to blame.
    In 2007 Sally Fallon wrote, “Over the past eight years, Organic Pastures Dairy of Fresno, California has sold over 40 million servings of raw milk without one case of illness; during the same period the California Department of Food and Agriculture has issued at least 19 recalls of pasteurized milk products in California. Frequent testing by Organic Pastures, the state of California, and the veterinary departments of local universities has failed to detect even a single human pathogen in the milk.
    Yet in September 2006, after four children who had consumed raw milk and also raw spinach or sushi became ill, state officials ordered the dairy to shut down. All Organic Pastures products were recalled. Officials performed over 2,000 tests of the entire dairy operation, including swabs taken from the 300 cows, the farm, the manure and the equipment, without finding a single pathogen. The raw dairy products are now back on store shelves, yet many state health officials continue to report that Organic Pasture’s raw milk caused illness due to E. coli”

  • Elanne Kresser

    Add to my last comment, why not a campaign against selling pasteurized milk?
    Based on the Centers for Disease Control’s own numbers, pasteurized milk was responsible for well over 200, 000 cases of food poisoning and over 600 deaths between 1998 and 2005 while raw milk was responsible for 1,007 illnesses and two deaths in the same time.
    People have thrived on raw milk for thousands of years – there are so many bigger fish to fry.
    Yes those of us who know that raw milk is one of the healthiest foods we consume can still get it other places. However campaigns like this threaten small, family based dairies – in California Organic Pastures and Clairvale milk that have far better standards of farming, animal husbandry and milk production than the factory farmed (even organic) megaliths will ever have.
    I have written to Whole foods to let them know that the money my husband and I spent at there store every month – most of our food budget – will no longer be coming to them.

  • jobana

    interestingly enough there is a lot of news that this is the first step to the gov’t controlling all food. I know that some of Obama’s radical czars what to stop meat production for the purposes of saving the environment and keeping health costs down under the gov’t health.
    Here is an article on milk and the federal control of gov’t. Good article.
    http://www.wnd.com/index.php?fa=PAGE.view&pageId=153133

  • Tam Timbers

    And this is why I DON’T frequent Whole Foods anymore. They’re a sell out. Why only a few people sick from a batch of milk I’m sure many more drank? How do we know from this article that the people in question didn’t already have a compromised immune system? and really you can get e-coli from many sources. i think you should be more concerned about pasteurized milk, especially if it’s laced with rGBH. Now thats been proven to increase the risk of prostate cancer and increases insulin in humans…..just sayin!

  • MAX

    U SPREAD FALSE INFO. THERE IS NOT A NY SCIENTIFIDC RESEARCH SHOWING IT IS HARMFUL, EXCEPT THOSE STUDIES BACK BY THE DAIRY CORP. MYBE AUTHOR IS RECEIVING “PRESENTS ” FROM DAIRYB EXEX. EXAMINE RESEARCH AND YOUR CONSCIENCE

  • mrothschild

    Actually, “Max,” there is abundant scientific research showing that raw milk can make you sick, sometimes very sick. Here’s a good description: “Raw milk has been and continues to be a staple in the epidemiological literature, linked to a long list of diseases, including campylobacteriosis, salmonellosis, tuberculosis, brucellosis, hemorrhagic escherichiosis, Brainerd diarrhea, Q fever, listeriosis, yersiniosis, and toxoplasmosis, to name a few … ” (Keene, WE. Lessons from investigations of foodborne disease outbreaks. JAMA 1999;281:1845-1847) Nevertheless, you are free to reject the evidence and drink unpasteurized milk. There is no law against consuming raw milk. Whole Foods wasn’t reacting to the dairy industry, but made a business decision based on the facts.

  • Mary Rothschild

    Actually, “Max,” there is abundant scientific research showing that raw milk can make you sick, sometimes very sick. Here’s a good description: “Raw milk has been and continues to be a staple in the epidemiological literature, linked to a long list of diseases, including campylobacteriosis, salmonellosis, tuberculosis, brucellosis, hemorrhagic escherichiosis, Brainerd diarrhea, Q fever, listeriosis, yersiniosis, and toxoplasmosis, to name a few … ” (Keene, WE. Lessons from investigations of foodborne disease outbreaks. JAMA 1999;281:1845-1847) Nevertheless, you are free to reject the evidence and drink unpasteurized milk. There is no law against consuming raw milk. Whole Foods wasn’t reacting to the dairy industry, but made a business decision based on the facts.

  • Cristina

    You can find studies on an endless range of topics and rarely are the results unbiased. I prefer to stick to facts and personal experiences. E. coli can grow on anything including pasteurized milk. I grew up drinking raw milk in a community where almost everyone I knew drank raw milk. I have never known a person who became sick from drinking it. I have, however, known many people who cannot digest pasteurized milk (including myself).
    Excepting information from a person who gets paid for their opinion (like a lawyer) is never a smart decision.

  • tk69

    They stop selling it because of the big bulls eye from the federal governemnt. If people want to drink raw milk, even to their detriment then they should be allowed to do it. after all, it is supposed to be a free country. ANd you can find issues with numerous products if you looked hard enough. It all comes down to politics and those selfish people who want to tell other people what to do with their lives.

  • Unknown

    I didn’t see in this article where the writer states raw milk should be illegal, so I don’t understand the comments in these responses that compare raw milk to cigarettes and that cigarettes are dangerous but still legal. Its obvious that the writer is not an advocate of raw milk and using her opinion to help explain why Whole Foods decided to stop selling it, which is it’s right to do so. You absolutely have the right to drink raw milk but no one is obligated to sell it. You dont like it then get your own cow.

  • SK

    and you writing such articles with no evidence, only for money!!!!

  • Josh Stickler

    You know what? I was going to make a reasonable and level-headed argument against what you’re talking about but I see that a lot of people have done so already. So, I’ll just say this: you’re an ignorant fool. I could explain why, but educating mornons isn’t my job. Keep your goddamn opinions to yourself, if you don’t know what your talking about.

  • rawmilkalldayeveryday

    Is this a joke? Raw milk has never been linked to e coli or any kind of food poisoning! in fact, people who are lactose-intolerant can still drink raw milk with no ill effects! raw milk is a health food! (especially if you let it sour – it becomes a mega probiotic). wake the f-up people. sheeple. you should be ashamed of yourself, author. you’ve sold your soul.