Just as Florida’s “pet use” scheme for selling raw milk appears to be coming apart, Wisconsin prosecutors are threatening to take away the old “cow share” gambit.

Three Wisconsin counties located immediately west and southwest of Milwaukee–Walworth, Waukesha, and Racine–are experiencing an outbreak of Campylobacter jejuni.

Most of the illnesses were traced back to a Walworth County farm owned by Mark and Petra Zinniker, which uses a “cow share” program  to skirt Wisconsin’s prohibition against selling raw milk to the public.

“It’s a crime to sell raw milk,” said Assistant District Attorney Zeke Wiedenfeld.  “Whether or not it gets charged is a determination we have to make.”

Farmers and their families can drink raw milk, but under Wisconsin law they cannot sell it.  So-called “cow share” programs sell shares in an animal, and then pay for feed and water in exchange for raw milk.

That loophole does not really exist in Wisconsin law, state officials say. To qualify, one must be a real bona fide owner with a real financial stake in the farm, not just in an animal.

Assistant D.A. Wiedenfeld expects to take several weeks before making a decision about bringing charges.  He said he wants to determine what is “the proper outcome for a case like this.”

Wisconsin health officials have run tests showing the Campylobacter from 25 patients had a DNA fingerprint that matched feces from cows at the Zinniker farm.

All 35 sick people in the three counties say they drink raw milk. Thirty admit they got it from Zinniker farm. Twenty-one are under age 18, and one was hospitalized. Campylobacter is a bacteria infection that typically causes vomiting, cramping, and diarrhea.

Zinniker’s were again told they cannot sell raw milk, but authorities have not stopped them from shipping milk to a regular diary for pasteurization, which they were also doing.

Criminal prosecution for selling raw milk would be a big step in a dairy state like Wisconsin.   Just that possibility, however, is not making everybody happy.

Wisconsin’s investigation of the Campy outbreak was poorly conducted and yielded no substantial proof raw milk made people ill, the Weston A. Price Foundation President Sally Sallon-Morell told the Elkhorn, WI Gazette.

“They found the same organism in the manure of some cows; they didn’t find the pathogen in the milk,” she said. “They have a correlation.  But correlation is not the same as causation.”

It’s a good bet, however, that the pro-raw milk advocates at the Price Foundation are worried about the trend line.  The possibility of Wisconsin bringing criminal action for raw milk sales under a “cow share” program follows developments in Florida that could drive raw milk further underground there as well.

Today is the last day Whole Foods will be selling raw milk in Florida.  For the past six years, the pricey grocery store chain has sold raw milk after labeling it “For Pet Use Only.”  It is the only large grocery chain to do so.

Also, a major farmer’s market is attempting to ban one of the state’s 19 raw milk dairies that are licensed to make sales for “pet use only.”

Other outbreaks in Wisconsin that have been tied to raw milk include:

  • In December 2001, at least 30 laboratory-confirmed cases of Campylobacter jejuni were identified in northwestern Wisconsin, all tied to a cow-share program. 

  • In June 2006, 19 laboratory-confirmed and 39 probable cases of Campylobacter jejuni infection were traced to cheese curds made from unpasteurized milk in an unlicensed facility by an unlicensed cheese maker in Ashland. The cases occurred in many Wisconsin counties and six other states.

Nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 45 outbreaks tied to unpasteurized milk or cheese consumption occurred from 1998 to 2005. These outbreaks occurred in 22 states, two were multi-state outbreaks, and they resulted in 1,000 illnesses, 104 hospitalizations and two deaths.

In an article published in the Wisconsin Medical Journal in August 2000, the Wisconsin Division of Public Health reported that from 1992 to 1999, consumption of raw milk and raw milk products was one of the top three risks for E. coli 0157:H7 infection in Wisconsin. E. coli 0157:H7 infections can be fatal.