“This is going to be a very short recall.”
That’s the prediction Mark McAfee, owner of Organic Pastures near Fresno, shared with Food Safety News in an email Friday after the state of California on May 10 announced a recall and quarantine of the dairy’s raw milk, raw skim milk, raw cream and raw butter.
The recall is based on the confirmed detection of Campylobacter bacteria in a sample of the dairy’s raw cream.
Raw milk is milk that hasn’t been pasteurized to kill harmful fecal bacteria that may be in the milk. While some people swear by raw milk, praising it for helping to cure or prevent their health problems, ranging from asthma to Crohn’s Disease, many scientists say those health claims are unfounded.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there are no health benefits from drinking raw milk that cannot be obtained from drinking pasteurized milk. And the CDC says raw milk and raw milk products are 150 times more likely than their pasteurized counterparts to sicken those who consume them.
Organic Pastures and the State of California
With a herd of 420 pastured cows, Organic Pastures is the largest raw milk producer in the nation.
The state is urging consumers who have any of the dairy’s raw milk, raw cream and raw butter in their refrigerators to dispose of it, and retailers are being told to pull those products immediately from their shelves.
According to the May 10 news release from the state’s Department of Food and Agriculure, at least 10 of the people sickened by Campylobacter in 5 counties in California between January through the end of April reported drinking Organic Pastures’ raw milk prior to becoming ill. Their ages ranged from 9 months to 38, with six of them under 18. None of the patients were hospitalized, and there were no deaths.
In an internal May 10 letter to the department’s chiefs of Emergency Response and Food Safety sections, three department doctors said that based on their investigation to date, “it is likely that Organic Pastures raw milk is the source of at least some of the Campylobacter jejuni infections in California since January 2012.”
The letter concluded by saying that the dates of the onset of illness from January through April 2012, and the detection of the pathogen in some of the dairy’s cream in May “suggest that Campylobacter jejuni contamination of raw milk may be a recurring problem at this dairy.”
Steve Lyle, spokesman for the state’s Department of Agriculture, told Food Safety News that epidemiological evidence collected from people sickened with a foodborne illness and the consumption common among them of a specific product is proof enough of the link between the ill people and the source.
“Epidemiological evidence is accepted as sound science worldwide,” he said.
But in this case, he said, the test results that detected the pathogen in a sample of cream taken during an onsite visit to the farm further bolsters the connection.
McAffee, however, is having none of this, referring to the unfolding situation as “a Witch Hunt” by the state against his dairy. On May 11 he had requested a hearing with the California Department of Food and Agriculture. The outcome of the hearing was not immediately known.
By late afternoon, the Organic Pastures Facebook page shared this information with customers:
“On Monday, we will be posting a video message from Mark McAfee, owner of OPDC, giving an update to share with you details on the status on the recall. Additionally, we have negotiated with CDFA the protocol for the fastest return/recall release to market. We apologize for the interruption for the availability of our products. Your safety and your health are our absolute highest priority and concern.”
McAfee also posted information on the dairy’s Facebook page explaining to consumers who had sent him questions about the recall that the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture and Department of Public Health had visited the dairy on May 1 due to reports of milk of “mild cases” of Campylobacter illnesses resulting from various unknown raw milk sources throughout the state.
At that time, he said, “many product samples” were taken from Organic Pastures for testing.
Then, on May 10, at the close of the dairy’s business day, McAfee said the dairy was revisited by state Agriculture Department officials “informing us that they had concluded their testing and all products tested negative with the exception of one raw cream sample, which tested positive for campylobacter.”
Based on the Agriculture Department’s code requirements, all products must be recalled by reason of the one cream sample, he said.
“We are working quickly and diligently to provide more samples today for further testing,” McAfee said. “We fully expect this recall to be brief.”
As for what consumers should do with any of the dairy’s raw milk or raw-milk products, McAfee said that except for cream, “please feel free and safe to consume them.”
That’s in direct opposition to what the state is advising.
In an email to Food Safety News, McAfee expressed frustration with the way the samples taken by the state were collected and stored.
“It is very possible that the one raw cream sample that tested positive for Campylobacter was contaminated at the lab,” he asserted.
In contrast, he said, all of the samples tested at the dairy’s lab came up negative for the bacteria.
Memorial Day weekend campout
McAfee said that despite the recall, the dairy’s plans for “Camping with the Cows,” are going forward, with 200 campers expected for the free May 26-27 event. But he also said that the recall may actually bring up to 500 people to the event.
“The more harassment we get, the bigger the market becomes,” he said.
An example of that sense of anger against public officials came in loud and clear in this post on the dairy’s Facebook page:
“Fight the good fight!!!! So sorry you have to keep battling against these puffed up government agencies with their ridiculous god complexes.”
McAfee said he expects his dairy’s raw milk and other products to be back on the retailers’ shelves “well before” the campout.
California allows retail sales of raw milk off the farm, but the dairies must be licensed by the state.
Organic Pastures has been linked to several past outbreaks of pathogen infection and recalled its unpasteurized dairy products for fecal-pathogen contamination in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2011. In 2006, the raw milk dairy was the subject of a quarantine order after six children became ill with E. coli infections – two experienced kidney failure from hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).
In November 2011, the state ordered a recall of Organic Pastures raw milk products and placed the farm on quarantine after five boys who drank unpasteurized milk from the dairy were infected with E. coli O157:H7. Environmental samples collected at Organic Pastures yielded E. coli 0157:H7 indistinguishable from the bacteria infecting the boy
s. Three of the children were hospitalized with HUS.
This is the sixth outbreak in the U.S. associated with unpasteurized dairy products since the start of 2012. So far this year, at least 18 people have been sickened by Campylobacter from raw goat milk sold in Kansas, 80 people became ill from Campylobacter-contaminated raw cow milk produced by a Pennsylvania farm, and 9 were infected by Campylobacter from raw milk products sold by a San Benito County, CA dairy. Fourteen E. coli O157:H7 infections have been linked to raw cow milk in central Missouri and a raw milk outbreak in Oregon has sickened 19 people with E. coli O157:H7 infections, one with Cryptosporidium and one with Campylobacter.
More information about the myths and facts about raw milk is available here.