Organic Pastures will no longer be producing or selling raw colostrum for human consumption, according to an announcement on the dairy’s Facebook page.
Based in Fresno, CA, Organic Pastures is the largest producer of raw milk (milk that hasn’t been pasteurized) in the nation. Colostrum, which is the first “milk” produced by mammals, including humans, after giving birth, confers passive immunity from the mother to the newborn.
Mark McAfee, co-owner of the dairy, told Food Safety News that Organic Pastures was the only creamery-dairy in the United States to hold a permit to sell fresh, raw cows’ colostrum.
“Now that is gone,” he said.
In November last year, California’s Department of Food and Agriculture imposed a quarantine on all of Organic Pastures’ raw milk and raw-milk products, including its raw colostrum, after the state’s Department of Public Health identified a cluster of five children in four counties who had been infected from August through October with the same strain of E. coli.
Interviews with the families of the children revealed that all of the children had consumed unpasteurized milk from Organic Pastures. Although tests of milk in the families’ homes, conducted after the children’s illnesses were lab-confirmed, were negative for E. coli, the department concluded that the dairy was the likely source of the infections — because the dairy’s raw milk was the only common exposure among the children.
At the time, Organic Pastures was selling 3 raw colostrum products — Colostrum, SuperLite and Qephor. It wasn’t selling them as milk products, but rather as dietary supplements, under an agreement with California’s Department of Health Services, which has since split into the Department of Health Care Services and the Department of Public Health.
Although the state has lifted the quarantine on the dairy’s other products, the quarantine on its raw colostrum products remains in effect. Dairyman McAfee said there was no link between the outbreak and the dairy’s raw colostrum products, pointing out that according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the Department of Public Health, none of the children sickened in the 2011 outbreak drank raw colostrum.
Attributing passage of the federal Food Safety Modernization Act last year as the reason for heightened scrutiny on raw products, the dairy’s Facebook page said that the state will no longer regulate raw colostrum for human consumption.
For the past 7 years, Organic Pastures had been selling its raw colostrum to a corps of devoted customers. The dairy’s recent announcement that it would no longer be selling it for human consumption triggered a tirade of comments ranging from “devastating” and “really terrible news” to a warning that this was yet another example of governmental “tyranny.”
McAfee said there are hundreds of consumers for colostrum, and while that may not be a very large group of consumers compared with the thousands of raw-milk consumers, it’s a very “passionate” group.
“They’re really upset about this,” McAfee said.
He also said that the California market for fresh colostrum is about $300,000 per year.
Asked why raw colostrum previously was allowed to be sold as a dietary supplement, the state’s health officials responded, “Colostrum, in a variety of forms, has been used as an ingredient in a number of dietary supplements, and California Public Health Department regulates supplements used in food.”
Meanwhile, Organic Pastures is negotiating with the state’s Food and Agriculture Department to bring a new product to market. This one will be fermented grade A milk branded as Qephor. Instead of raw colostrum, raw milk will be used in this new product. McAfee said he hopes to have the product on the shelves within a week or so.
This version of Qephor will be cultured in a low-concentration of raw milk with kefirgrains from the Caucusus mountains of Russia.
“This will take some of the sting out of it,” McAfee said, referring to the end of sales of raw colostrum for human consumption from his dairy.
But McAfee also knows that for some customers, nothing but raw colostrum will do.
“The door is still open,” he said, explaining that people can come to the farm to buy raw colostrum, but they’ll have to sign an affidavit that it’s for animal use only.
He said that the dairy will be producing the raw colostrum under the state’s same strict standards for low bacteria count as required for raw and conventional milk. And while Organic Pastures in the past did outsource some of its colostrum from other dairies, McAfee said it hasn’t outsourced the product for the past 5 years.
“None of it will be outsourced,” he said.
Referring to the popularity of the product as a health supplement, McAfee called some of its devotees “colostrum hoarders.”
He said he’s seen some of them buy 250 pints at a time — at $8 a pint.
In an email to Food Safety News, Steve Lyle, a spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said that Organic Pastures has been notified that, under California law, colostrum is not permitted to be sold as human food.
“This agency does not have jurisdiction should the dairy attempt to market colostrum as pet food,” he said. “However, CDFA investigators will be monitoring the situation to make sure colostrum, in fact, is not marketed for human consumption.”
Colostrum offers important health benefits to mammals’ newly born offspring, whether they be cows, whales, cats or humans. That’s because colostrum contains immunoglobulins — large proteins — that transfer passive immunity from mother to offspring.
According to a 2011 report, “Immunoglobulins in Colostrum and Milk,” by animal scientists Walter Hurley, at the University of Illinois, and Peter K. Theil, at Aarhus University in Denmark, the immunoglobulins in cows’ colostrum and milk can also provide immunological benefits to other mammals, including humans. Even so, the scientists concluded that additional research is needed to clarify how this works when used in mammals (including people) that are more mature than newborns — children and adults, for example.
A Google search for “colostrum” reveals that there’s a whole world of colostrum products out there, among them, some offered by Amazon.com. The company is also selling a book titled “Colostrum: Nature’s Gift to the Immune System.”
The general gist is that people who drink cow’s colostrum — whether it’s fresh from the cow or a mixture made from powdered colostrum — can reap health benefits such as an increase in lean muscle mass, flu prevention, neutralization of harmful bacteria in the gut, stronger immune systems, and even longevity.
But food-safety experts warn that those health claims don’t add up to a green-light-go for humans to drink raw dairy colostrum. They warn that like any raw dairy product, certain risks go with the territory, and may outweigh any benefits.
Michele Jay-Russell, a veterinarian and food safety specialist at the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security at University of California,
Davis, told Food Safety News that raw colostrum from cow-to-calf or human-to-baby during the first days of life is highly beneficial and helps build the newborn’s immune system.
But she also pointed out that raw colostrum is very susceptible to contamination with harmful bacteria when it is collected and stored on the farm, or delivered to stores. She said that if it’s left on the counter at room temperature for even a short time, pathogens such as E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella may quickly grow to dangerous levels.
“For these reasons, feeding raw colostrum from cows or other barn animals to human babies or young children is very risky,” she said. “Medical and public health organization worldwide advise people to avoid raw dairy products from farm animals, including colostrum.”
Jay-Russell also pointed to a research survey of raw colostrum on farms in Pennsylvania, including small dairies, that found high levels of fecal bacteria in colostrum samples.
“Approximately one in every six raw colostrum samples were positive for Salmonella in their survey,” she said.
In a letter sent to Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture in late November last year, food-safety attorney Bill Marler (publisher of Food Safety News) had warned Ross that “you have a product that is . . . putting children’s health at risk, a matter that your regulatory team should resolve immediately.”
He pointed out that raw colostrum was not regulated by the department and said that under the state’s Food and Ag Code, it should be because it “resembles milk.” He said that under the code, products containing milk or resembling milk need to meet the same safety standards as the milk product it contains or resembles.
“It is imperative that the CDFA regulate this product immediately,” Marler said in his letter, which as of Jan. 14 remained unanswered.
Marler also told Ross that a state report from 2006, when Organic Pastures was also linked to an E. coli outbreak, revealed that the dairy’s colostrum products had “extremely high coliform counts,” which is an indirect measure of fecal contamination
In addition, he referred her to a survey of bacteriological quality and the occurrence of Salmonella in raw bovine colostrum. In the same letter, Marler said that “a key market for colostrum in California is a parent who uses it to make homemade raw infant formula for babies as a replacement for breastfeeding and commercial formula feeding.”
“A baby’s death in the future is not out of the realm of possibility, particularly if this product continues to be unregulated,” he warned.
In an email to Food Safety News after Organic Pastures announced it would no longer be selling raw colostrum for human consumption, Marler once again emphasized that colostrum is a dairy product and should be treated as such.
“It certainly should not be sold as an unregulated supplement,” he said.