Dear Governor Sandoval:
Seven years ago when my son became severely ill after drinking contaminated raw milk, I knew very little about the realities of contracting a foodborne illness. Despite the fact I’m educated and hold a master’s degree, I was naïve about foodborne pathogens. We all know someone who has eaten something and then hours later or the next day was sick. This was my foodborne illness knowledge base. I believed the worst that could happen was a few days of diarrhea and vomiting.
In the spring of 2006, the health food store where our family shops began selling raw milk. Huge signs hung in the store to catch customers’ attention claiming raw milk could heal asthma, allergies and digestive issues. My son was always congested after drinking pasteurized milk and he also suffers from ADD. I began to contemplate buying raw milk to see if it would help him. Had I not lived in California where raw milk is available in the grocery store, I would have never purchased it for my son. This is not a food I would have sought out in another manner illegally from a nearby farmer or herdshare program. The only reason I bought it is that it was readily available.
Initially I had some reservations, but the organization that encourages parents to feed their infants and children raw milk only focuses on the benefits; the risks of drinking raw milk are downplayed. The company that sold the milk had detailed information on its website about how it fed the cows grass and tested the milk for pathogens, so I thought it would be safe to drink. When I made the choice to buy raw milk from the grocery store, I didn’t know what choice I was really making. I never did see the microscopic state warning label on the back of the bottle. If a warning like this was front and center on the bottle, I would have never purchased it:
Warning: Unpasteurized milk, also known as raw milk, is a raw agricultural product and may contain harmful bacteria (not limited to E. coli, Campylobacter, Listeria, and Salmonella) and can lead to serious injury and even death. Pregnant women, infants, children, the elderly, and persons with lowered resistance to disease (immune compromised) have higher risk for harm, which may include bloody diarrhea, vomiting, fever, dehydration, Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, Guillian-Barre Syndrome, Reactive Arthritis, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, miscarriage, or death.
Note: Raw Milk must be kept refrigerated at 40 degrees at all times.
Every morning I have to look in the mirror and deal with the fact that I almost killed my son when I made the decision to give him raw milk. During his two-month stay in the hospital, he endured endless hours on a ventilator, kidney dialysis, chest drainage tubes, central lines, PICC lines, blood, plasma and platelet transfusions, intravenous nutrition, narcotics, antibiotics, and surgeries. He recovered from renal failure, congestive heart failure, a collapsed lung, acute pancreatitis, high blood pressure and seizures. When I made the choice to give my son raw milk, I didn’t know something so horrific could happen to him.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to join the working group of the Real Raw Milk Facts website. The goal of this website is to address the complex issues surrounding raw milk science and policy. The website is also meant to serve as a clearinghouse for evidence-based studies, presentations, commentaries, regulations, and position statements on raw milk. The highlights of the website are the victim videos, the milk outbreak charts from 1998 to present, and the U.S. map outlining each state’s raw milk laws.
If I could turn back the clock to August of 2006, this is the information about raw milk I wish I knew:
1. All foodborne illnesses are preventable, especially from milk. Over 100 years ago, it was discovered that if you cooked milk, like you cook meat, poultry and eggs, it kills deadly pathogens. Pasteurization was invented for a reason. As a society, we are too far removed from the horrors that occurred to children over 100 years ago. We really don’t comprehend the damage that can be done if the milk is contaminated.
2. Raw milk is a high risk food for deadly pathogens because they live in cows’ feces. Cows lie in their own feces and defecate while being milked. The position of the cow’s teats to the anus can cause cow feces to get into the milk. It is impossible to milk cows twice a day, 365 days a year, without making a mistake. Eventually, a pathogen will find its way into the milk. When people make a choice to drink raw milk, they are making a choice to possibly consume deadly pathogens.
3. Infants, children, the elderly, pregnant women and anyone with a compromised immune system are at the greatest risk of becoming ill from contaminated raw milk. These high risk groups should not consume raw milk.
4. Based on the CDC’s foodborne disease outbreak database, from 1998-2010 there have been 96 raw milk outbreaks causing 1,605 illnesses. There are three pathogens that cause the majority of raw milk outbreaks: Campylobacter, E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella. The illnesses start out the same with severe diarrhea and possible vomiting, but each pathogen can cause other types of damage unique to the specific pathogen.
Campylobacter: This pathogen causes the most raw milk outbreaks. Since 1998, raw milk has been involved in 77 Campylobacter outbreaks causing 1124 people to become ill. This pathogen can cause reactive arthritis and Guillain-Barre Syndrome which leads to paralysis. Mari Tardiff drank raw milk contaminated with Campylobacter and then became paralyzed.
E. coli O157:H7: Since 1998, raw milk has been involved in 21 E. coli outbreaks, causing 331 illnesses. E. coli O157:H7 can cause the serious damage and can lead to Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, the most common cause of kidney failure in children. Children suffering HUS can also lose part or all of their colon, suffer pancreatitis, seizures and strokes. After drinking milk contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 my son Chris and others: Nicole, Larry and Kalee, all developed HUS. Last year two-year-old Kylee developed HUS and now needs a kidney transplant.
Salmonella: Since 1998, raw milk has been involved in 6 Salmonella outbreaks causing 179 illnesses. This pathogen can cause blood infection, irritable-bowel syndrome and reactive arthritis. Antibiotic resistance makes Salmonella difficult to treat.
5. When there are raw milk outbreaks, the majority of victims are children. I counted the number of raw milk outbreaks between 2005 and 2012 involving the pathogen E. coli O157:H7–the same pathogen that almost killed my son. Over this eight-year period, there were twelve outbreaks. These outbreaks caused 100 illnesses with the victims’ median age being under 13, and 23 children developed hemolytic uremic syndrome. It is shocking to think that 23 percent–or almost one-fourth of these children–developed this syndrome that leads to kidney failure after drinking raw milk contaminated with this pathogen.
6. Following raw milk safety standards may reduce the risks of pathogens, but it will never eliminate them completely and testing does not guarantee the milk is not contaminated with a pathogen. For example, the raw milk my son drank is tested both by the state and the dairy. In 2006, the testing occurred about twice a month and the state testing occurred monthly. That means it was tested around 3 times a month. The other 27 days the milk was not tested. This leaves a lot of flexibility for pathogens to sneak in undetected.
In the state of California, there are two dairies that meet the requirements to sell certified raw milk. Despite this milk being regulated, tested, and deemed safe, outbreaks still occur. From 2006-2012, a period of merely six years, there were four raw milk outbreaks: two from Campylobacter and two from E. coli 0157:H7. Five children developed HUS. Statistically, it reveals a raw milk outbreak every 18 months and three of the four outbreaks occurred at the same dairy. As you think about signing this bill, you must take into consideration the cost of investigations when statewide raw milk outbreaks begin in your state.
Based upon my firsthand experience, I keenly understand why a host of professional organizations do not support the consumption of raw milk, especially for children. To name a few: the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Association of Public Health Veterinarians, the National Environmental Health Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration. To whom will you listen: professional health organizations or an industry interested in making money from the sale of raw milk—regardless of the risks?
As you contemplate signing this bill, please take the time review information on the Real Raw Milk Facts website, specifically the victim videos and the raw milk outbreak charts and reports.
Mother of Christopher Martin