The raw milk supplier to the coop now at the center of a growing Campylobacter outbreak in southeastern Michigan decided recently to stop distributing product across state lines three years after federal officials found the dairy was breaking the law by putting its raw milk into interstate commerce.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in a Feb. 8, 2007 “Warning Letter”, said the Forest Grove Dairy “distributes unpasteurized raw milk and cream in interstate commerce, in finished form for human consumption.”  If so, that would mean the dairy was violating the federal Public Health Service (PHS) Act.

The Indiana-based Forest Grove Dairy, located in Middlebury, supplied raw milk to the Michigan-based Family Farm Cooperative at Vandalia, where a couple dozen people who drank the unpasteurized product have recently fallen ill with campylobacteriosis, the illness caused by the ingestion of Campylobacter bacteria.

But now after the outbreak the flow of raw Hoosier milk to Michigan has been shut off.

“Forest Grove Dairy has experienced increasing pressure from FDA over the past week, and notwithstanding the private nature of our herd lease and share arrangement, these pressures embody serious risks,” said the Michigan coop in an email to its 250 members telling them their raw milk source was cut off.

It only takes an hour or less to drive across the state line to Middlebury, IN from Vandalia, MI.  But crossing that line is what put the raw milk into interstate commerce, violating federal law.

The Indiana Board of Animal Health, the Michigan Department of Agriculture, and FDA jointly investigated the Forest Grove Dairy in 2007.

“The milk and cream you produce in Indiana and distribute to Cooperatives in Michigan and Illinois for further distribution to their Co-op members is in final package form for direct human consumption,” Joann M. Givens, FDA’s Detroit wrote the owner of the Forest Grove Dairy.

The only labeling now on the raw milk is apparently contained in a green and white plastic cap, which reads: “FOREST GROVE DAIRY, MIDDLEBURY, INDIANA; RAW COW’S MILK, WARNING-NOT PASTEURIZED, 128 FL OZ.”  The FDA letter indicated that might not be sufficient.

Now three years later, the Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH) reports that in addition to the 12 confirmed cases of Campylobacter, 12 other potential cases are currently involved in testing.  No one has required hospitalization.  Ages of the outbreak victims range between two and 51 years.

“Raw or unpasteurized milk and dairy product may carry many types of disease-causing germs such as Campylobacter, Salmonella and E. coli, said Dr. Gregory Holzman, chief medical executive for MDCH.  “People need to be aware that raw milk and raw dairy products have not been heat treated or pasteurized to kill germs.”

Campylobacter is a bacterial illness that causes diarrhea (often bloody), fever, and abdominal cramps 2-5 days after exposure.  Illness may persist for one to two weeks.  Some people require treatment.  The elderly, infants, and those with weak immune systems are more likely to have a severe or enduring illness.

Persons who are ill with these symptoms and have consumed raw milk recently should consult with their medical provider and ask about being tested for Campylobacter infection.

Campylobacter illness is a reportable communicable disease.

The FDA’s 2007 “Warning Letter” raises the question of whether more aggressive federal action then could have prevented the current outbreak.  At the time, raw milk advocates mounted a campaign charging FDA with “intimidation” of the dairy and coop, and making claims that herd share agreements were outside federal jurisdiction.

Selling raw milk is illegal in Michigan.

The Family Farm Cooperative, which through its attorney Steve Bemis claims there is no evidence that its raw milk products are causing the illnesses, runs a cow share system.  Coop members pay a $25 annual fee and an $8 per gallon “handling fee” for their raw milk supply.

The Niles Daily Star reports that Richard Hebron, who runs the Coop, had a run-in with the law in 2006.  State police stopped him on a highway in Ann Arbor and seized 453 gallons of raw milk and later executed warrants to search his home and computer.

He was, however, back in business a week later as Michigan opted not to challenge the legality of the cow share program.

FDA is currently seeking a permanent injunction against California-based Organic Pastures to prevent that company to distributing any of its raw milk products across any state lines.  See FDA Attempts to Corral Raw Milk Producer, Dec. 17, 2009.