Company predicts raw milk will be back in stores ‘in short order’

The controversy over raw milk has entered surprising new territory–the Whole Foods stores in California, Washington state, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. Effective March 12, the company pulled raw milk–milk that has not been pasteurized–out of its store dairy departments in those four states.

whole-foods-pulls-raw-milk.jpgRetail stores in those four states are permitted to sell raw milk under state regulation.

Austin, TX-based Whole Foods, the tenth largest food and drug store in the United States, is a major player in the grocery business. In fiscal year 2008, it chalked up $8 billion in sales, according to the company’s website.

Whole Foods spokeswoman Vicki Foley told Food Safety News that because different states have different regulations about whether and how retailers can sell raw milk, it’s difficult for Whole Foods to apply standards and ensure consistency.

“We are currently in the process of looking at these regulations, and we are also working with raw milk producer partners to create raw milk standards with one rigorous, consistent set of requirements,” she said in an e-mail to Food Safety News. “For added assurance that our customers expect, we are not selling raw milk or raw milk products until we finish this process.”

Foley said the process should be completed “in short order,” although she did not respond directly to a question about how long that might be.

A sign in a Whole Foods store in Redmond, WA, informed customers that the company is pursuing a “rigorous” company-wide standard for raw milk and will not be offering it until it completes this process.

The sign also informs customers that Whole Foods hopes to be able “to offer these products again soon.” Joe MacAlister, an employee in the dairy department at the Whole Foods store in Berkeley, Calif., told Food Safety News on the morning of March 13 that the store had pulled raw milk off the shelves the previous evening.

On March 12, California raw milk producer Mark McAfee, owner of Organic Pastures Dairy Company, the largest retail-approved raw-organic-dairy-products producer in North America, sent a notice out to stores that sell raw milk informing them that Whole Foods had notified him and all other raw milk producers nationwide that the company’s stores wouldn’t be able to carry any raw dairy products.

In that same notice, McAfee also said that Whole Foods told him that its insurance company would not insure the stores that sold raw milk until a nationwide food safety plan was developed for all raw dairy producers.

Whole Foods’ Vicki Foley did not respond directly to questions about whether the company’s decision was triggered by concerns of its insurance company.

In his notice to the stores, McAfee told the storeowners that this is actually good news for them.

“We will be directing all our consumers to stores like yours,” he said. “Please expect and prepare to have increased sales of raw milk and higher traffic due to this turn of events.”

McAfee said he had been given only six hours notice about Whole Foods’ decision to suspend all deliveries of raw milk to the stores.

He also estimated that losing Whole Foods as an outlet for his products will mean a sales loss of about six percent but that he expects to be able to make up that loss by selling to health food retail outlets.

In an earlier interview with Food Safety News, McAfee said his dairy could not keep up with the demand for raw milk.

raw-milk4-featured.jpgOn the other side of the fence, Michele Jay-Russell, a University of California Davis researcher with the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security, said that Whole Foods’ recent action on raw milk is “good news for California,” even though raw dairy will still be available in retail health-food stores.

She also said that raw chocolate colostrum, which Whole Foods had in its dairy cases, is a public health concern, in large part because it’s a product being marketed for children. She pointed out that colostrum is regulated as a nutritional supplement and is therefore not subject to the same sanitary standards as Grade A raw milk.

Two outbreaks linked to raw chocolate colostrum have been documented in California, she said. Those outbreaks included two severe illnesses among children who had E. coli O157:H7 and HUS (hemolytic uremic syndrome).

Both of these illnesses are potentially fatal.

Colostrum is the thick, yellowish, first milk produced by a female after giving birth but before the actual production of milk. As such, it conveys certain immunological benefits to the offspring.

Food safety attorney Bill Marler, who is representing a child and an adult from Connecticut who consumed raw milk contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 purchased at a Whole Foods store, said the two patients racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical expenses. In addition, the adult–a young mother–will likely require a kidney transplant, which will run into multiple millions of dollars in cost.

In pointing to the liability risk in cases such as this, Marler said that in most states, anyone in the chain of distribution, which would include a farmer, a shipper and a retailer, is responsible for damages if raw milk causes harm.

But while the farmer is part of that chain, he or she often has limited assets, including insurance, which Marler said means the retailer might be left “holding the bag.” Marler told Food Safety News that the reality is that insurers are getting out of insuring dairies that sell raw milk.

Several months ago when Marler was a speaker at the executive committee of the American Insurance Institute in Washington, D.C., the committee members told him they were interested in the risks of raw milk. Marler also said the insurer that insured Towne Farm Dairy, the dairy involved in the Connecticut raw milk lawsuits, is now out of the market.

“Other insurers are adding in raw milk exclusions,” Marler said. “Whole Foods is not going to take on the risk of it by itself–especially facing the HUS suits they have in Connecticut and the risk of punitive damages.”

In comments e-mailed to Food Safety News, Sally Fallon Morell, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nutrition-education non-profit that promotes sustainable agriculture and traditional foods, said that the decision by Whole Foods was not based on any problem with the milk but instead has to do with the company’s insurance coverage–that the company’s insurance carriers want to be satisfied that food safety plans are satisfactory.

“We expect farm-fresh milk to be back in the Whole Foods dairy case in the future,” she said.

On her blog, “Hartke Is Online,” Kimberly Hartke, a raw dairy products consumer and a publicist for the Weston A. Price Foundation, emphasized that it’s important that raw milk products available in retail stores come from producers with solid safety plans, good animal husbandry practices, regular testing of livestock and the dairy products, and a good safety record.

“This is for the protection of public health,” she said. “Our members care very much about food safety and the reputation of the farm-fresh milk marketers.”