Oct 20, 2018

You May Want to Think Twice Before Confiding in Public Health and Agriculture Officials

Published Nov 16, 2006, 12:00pm

You May Want to Think Twice Before Confiding in Public Health and Agriculture Officials

When Carolyn and Jacob Hall's four-year-old son, Peter, became ill last spring with campylobacter, it triggered a series of events that eventually led the Ohio Department of Agriculture in September to revoke the dairy license of Carol Schmitmeyer, a farmer who distributes raw milk to herd share owners (which I described in my most recent BusinessWeek.com column).

Now Carolyn and Jacob are kicking themselves for discussing their consumption of raw milk with the Ohio Department of Agriculture. In a comment on my BusinessWeek.com article, Jacob states: "The ODA used our four-year-old son as a pawn in their game. We happened to be drinking Schmitmeyer milk at a time he happened to eat some snow covered in animal droppings and got sick. In no way were the two related, but the ODA came to our house and interrogated my wife and all this. They say they are making these regulations to protect the consumer - because they care about us. Not once did they ask how our son was feeling. Moral of the story: try to keep your children from eating dirty snow, and don't give the ODA the time of day if they show up at your house. We're sorry we didn't realize that second point sooner. For our son is fine now from the dirty snow, but we're sorry to see all the trouble the ODA is making."

The Halls are the second family to regret having cooperated with government officials following up on bacterial illnesses with uncertain causes. Katherine Corey of Ann Arbor similarly cooperated after her husband and two daughters became ill last spring, and volunteered that they consume raw milk(see my posting of Oct. 26). That admission launched the entire investigation and sting of the Family Farms Cooperative and Richard Hebron, its manager.

The moral of these stories: It may be best to think twice before volunteering too much information to physicians and public health and agriculture officials. When we or a family member becomes ill from something that seems like it could be food poisoning, the natural reaction is to let public health officials know, in the belief they will try to find the real cause and cure the problem. But as Jacob Hall points out, these people aren't always interested in finding out the truth, but rather sometimes in finding a scapegoat so as to protect their own rear ends.
A Goat's Eye View from the Farm, and Pearls of Wisdom from Jay Leno

A day after my exploration of the theory of the food chain, we gain insight from a farmer as to the challenges of making fundamental changes.

A woman who identifies herself as The Food Lady has an interesting post about the difficulties of transforming a small livestock operation into a truly organic farm. She raises goats for their milk.

It turns out that there are lots of pressures—financial, convenience, and regulatory—to stay conventional. It costs a lot, in upfront cash as well as time and patience, to make the transition. Even if you are able to do it yourself, there is the possibility that runoff of pesticides and hormones from neighboring farms will undo all your work.

If your animals get sick, do you treat them with antibiotics, or risk that they’ll die, and destroy your investment? Congratulations to The Food Lady (she doesn’t identify herself in any detail) for an excellent post.

One other thing I want to mention just because I found it so offensive is the current issue of Parade magazine, which goes to millions of readers as part of Sunday newspapers. It’s the one with Jay Leno on the cover holding a chicken wing, with this heading, “Plus, Jay Leno admits: ‘I haven’t eaten a vegetable since 1969.’” Details are in the article (scroll down when you get to the link), where he says, “I eat a lot of junk food like pizza, hamburgers and hot dogs. When I have a soda, I have a soda—not a diet soda. I don’t think I’ve ever had a salad, actually.”

I really don't want to be preachy--after all, it's none of my business what another person chooses to eat. The bigger problem with this kind of thing is that many Parade readers believe what celebrities say, and emulate what they do. So if a major celebrity says he eats unhealthy food, and he looks okay on television every night, many people will assume that it’s fine to do the same. Parade actually publishes some encouraging statistics about Americans trying to eat more healthful foods, but all that is overshadowed because the magazine can’t resist the temptation to put a celebrity on the cover.
The Messy Issues Behind the Raw Milk Debate

It wasn't all that long ago that most of us ate white bread, pesticide-treated fruits and vegetables, and anti-biotics-laden eggs, chicken and beef. We did it because that was all that was available and we didn't know any better that to seek out alternatives. Gradually, of course, people learned that whole grains, organic produce, and drug-free meat were better bets, and small farms began making them available.

But as LDF so eloquently puts it in a comment on Saturday's post, the raw milk debate forces consideration of questions about our entire food supply that most people in positions of authority (and actually most of the public) would rather not think about. "Pasteurization allows dangerous co-mingling of the milk from thousands of cows who do not have to be at their peak of health," LDF states. "They don't even have to be fed well. Take away the opportunity to erase bad farming practices with pastuerization and you've exposed the ugly side of our food supply."

This ugly side pops up unpleasantly from time to time in the form of events like the spinach contamination problems of September and October that sickened 200 people and killed three, and similar contaminations of lettuce, ground beef, and other products that don't receive so much publicity. It also pops up in problems like Mad Cow disease. And in issues around the nutritional value of foods selected and shipped more for appearance.

No industry wants to face up to having to improve its quality standards. The U.S. auto industry resisted for many years, and Japanese auto companies successfully filled the growing demand for better cars.

Competition from small farms is fomenting change in the food business. But because agriculture is so tightly regulated, the powers that be can strongly resist pressure for fundamental change. Right now, raw milk is a flash point in an ongoing battle.
State of Denial: One Public Official's Curious Reasoning About Raw Milk and Health

Two comments on yesterday's posting about the views of Ohio officials, from Cara and Miguel, raise a similar question: Are public officials open to possibly adjusting their view of the world of milk safety, or are they locked into a particular position, for economic or other reasons?

The comments remind me of an additional part of my research for my latest BusinessWeek.com column into Ohio's tough enforcement of anti-raw-milk laws in Ohio.

One of the factors that triggered the Ohio Department of Agriculture's (ODA) investigation of Carol Schmitmeyer, a dairy farmer mentioned in my column, was that two of her herd-share owners became ill last spring with campylobacter, a food-borne illness described by the U.S. Center for Disease Control as “one of the most common bacterial causes of diarrheal illness in the United States,” which means it can be carried by many foods aside from raw milk.

One victim was an elderly man and the other a young child. Of course, local public health and ODA officials immediately blamed Carol's raw milk, even though tests of milk from the Schmitmeyer dairy showed no evidence of harmful bacteria.

The elderly man later wrote ODA to say that a newspaper report about the illness stated “I was in good health prior to contracting the bacteria…this was not the case.” He recounted his “history of edema in the ankles and legs” and how he was told during a recent visit to a hospital emergency room that “my oxygen level was very low.” He also recounts that his wife and other family members drank the same raw milk as he did and encountered no problems. What he was saying was that his immune system problems rendered him susceptible to bacterial infection.

The mother of the boy who contracted the illness wrote to ODA as well, saying that though “every member of our family drank the milk, including our one-year-old daughter and six-year-old,” the third child was the only one to become sick. She recalls that her son had eaten snow on the way out to the car two days before his illness, and it could well have been contaminated by the bird and squirrel droppings that were in ample supply around the house.

So what was the reaction of Lewis Jones, head of ODA’s dairy division, to these explanations? Denial is putting it mildly.

“That’s what is so dangerous…If people get sick, they’ll say it was something else” besides raw milk, he stated. So he's saying that the victims are in denial...

I mentioned to him that a number of people who drink raw milk credit it with helping reduce the intensity of any number of conditions, including autism and asthma in children. That caught Lewis’ interest. “I have an autistic son, I would never give him raw milk.” Why not? “Because there’s a chance he could get sick.”

That told me there was no way this man would ever change his mind. If, after growing up drinking raw milk, he wouldn’t even try it as a means to perhaps relieve an otherwise uncurable condition in his own son, then he must be terribly locked into his own view of the world. Too bad for the people whose lives he affects.
Why Such Determination to Rid the World of Raw Milk?

Apart from my sad interviews with struggling Ohio raw-milk dairy farmers, the most intriguing conversation I had reporting my latest BusinessWeek.com column on the state’s uber-enforcement was with Lewis Jones, head of the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s (ODA) dairy division.

He wouldn’t tell me how old he was, but my guess from his photo (published with Wednesday’s post) is that he’s in his 60s. In addition to running ODA’s dairy division, he served for two years beginning in 2004 as president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture's (NASDA) Dairy Division. So he’s achieved some national recognition among his peers.

I wanted to learn why he has been so aggressively going after producers of raw milk in Ohio (as well as in California) and asked him about his own feelings about raw milk.

“I grew up and drank raw milk myself,” he told me. “Growing up, I liked the taste of raw milk. I really did.” But during his high school years, he began drinking pasteurized milk, and never looked back. “A number of times, I tried going back to raw milk and the taste wasn’t there.”

But he doesn’t think other people should have the choice he had because he is convinced that “there was a reason for pasteurization.” The reason is that contamination of unpasteurized milk can appear at any time, under the cleanest of conditions. He recalled that the sale of raw milk was legal in Ohio for farmers who had received special licenses before the 1960s. By 2002, only one farm with the license remained, and several of its customers inexplicably became ill that year. “It was a very clean farm that had a food-borne outbreak…You cannot control what pathogens might be communicated.” (That dairy gave up its raw milk license in 2003.)

I should mention that Jones and an ODA associate, LeeAnne Mizer, were extremely open and frank with me. There were none of the cop-out excuses common in other states' departments—We can’t comment on pending cases, etc., etc. They forwarded hearing and other documents promptly and were available on short notice for interviews.

They say they see themselves simply as upholding the law--that if the law changed and become more permissive about raw milk, they would enforce the new law. But in the meantime, they sound like more than regulators. They sound like advocates. "Science has provided us with a great alternative," says Mizer. "That is pasteurization. I can't imagine why people would want to go back on science."

Michigan Raw Milk Investigation Drags On

You have to wonder if the Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA) has perhaps stumbled onto an international connection in its investigation of the Family Farms Cooperative.

When the case first blew open four weeks ago tomorrow with confiscation of the co-op's products and searches of farmer Richard Hebron's home and the Ann Arbor retailer Morgan & York storage area, the word from MDA was the investigation would take "a few weeks." Then last week the word from the Cass County prosecutor, whose territory includes Ann Arbor, was that the investigation would be concluded last week, and a decision about whether to prosecute announced this week. Subsequently, though, Katherine Fedder of the MDA was being quoted as saying the investigation had expanded to include several states and government agencies.

Well, I just spoke with an assistant prosecutor in the Cass County office, and he says the MDA still hasn't completed its investigation, and the prosecutor has been told to expect that it will take, yes, "a few weeks" before the agency wraps up. It seems there was some miscommunication between the two offices as to how far along the investigation really was when the prosecutor offered his optimistic time line.

In the meantime, Hebron's computer and business records remain with the MDA. Unfortunately, government agencies are something like universities--"a few weeks" carries a different meaning to them than it does to people who really need to work for a living.

Election Results Could Have Positive Impact in Raw Milk Wars

ODADirDailey.jpgAs the raw milk wars being fought around the country increasingly permeate the public consciousness, the issue could attract some positive political attention in the aftermath of yesterday's voting. The first place this might happen is in Ohio, which takes one of the hardest lines against raw milk, but has just elected a Democrat, Ted Strickland, as governor for the first time in 16 years.

The new governor means almost certainly that the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) will have a new director to replace Fred Dailey (in photo above left), who has held the post since 1991, and has aggressively sought to stamp out all means of distributing raw milk. As the Beatles put it, "Got to admit it's getting better...couldn't get much worse."

Two pieces of proposed legislation (one and two) in Ohio that would legalize the distribution of raw milk directly from farms to consumers, such as through herd-share programs, have been stalled, in significant measure because of Dailey's opposition. "Science has established the potential hazards with the consumption of raw milk," he stated in testimony last May. "You can legalize raw milk sales, but you can't sanitize it with legislation...There may be thousands of Ohioans who believe if raw milk is legal, then it's safe. Such a perception could lead many Ohioans to unknowingly consume raw milk and become sick."

Aside from "science," Dailey also expressed concern about "biosecurity." Legalization of raw milk distribution directly from farms could make "the farms more vulnerable to security breeches, bulk tank tampering, and the transfer of diseases from one farm to another."

We won't know for a while who will replace Dailey's group at ODA, but quite possibly the new bureaucrats will look for ways to make things happen in a positive and safe way rather than ensure they don't happen at all.
Michigan's Senior Senator Interjects Himself Into Raw Milk Case

levin.jpgProponents of raw milk are finally getting a little help in the political process. It's a small step, but Sen Carl Levin has written to the federal Food and Drug Administration demanding information about its role in the Family Foods Cooperative investigation. (The web site familyfarmscoop.com first posted the letter.)

As I have reported previously, agents from the FDA twice visited the Amish-owned Indiana farm that produces the raw milk for the co-op as part of a cow-sharing arrangement. The FDA hasn't yet provided any details of its investigation, but clearly it became involved because of the interstate arrangement whereby the milk is transported from Indiana to Michigan.

Sen. Levin's letter focuses on the cow sharing arrangement, suggesting he may have information that that is the FDA's focus. The letter notes that "the cow share agreement is a private contract where FFC members paid for the boarding, care, and milking of a cow that produces raw milk."

He wonders whether the FDA has previously investigated cow share arrangements, and concludes by questioning whether there are "provisions under FDA regulations that allow citizens to purchase and consume raw milk." I can't wait to see the FDA's answers to these questions. I suspect Sen. Levin is going to learn a lot about raw milk, perhaps more than he wants to know.

Get a Load of This: A Corporate Grocer’s Own Research Confirms Three-Fourths of Its Products Are Garbage

You probably suspect when you roam a grocery store that three-fourths of the products are nutritionally worthless. But the last place you’d expect to confirm your hunch is with the grocer stocking all the chips, dips, and sugary cereals.

Well, a Northeast food chain, Hannaford Brothers, has done just that. It assembled a panel of nutrition experts and had it assess its 27,000 products, with the idea of awarding one to three stars to each as “good, better, best” in nutritional value. Lo and behold, 77% of the items received NO STARS.

Both CNN and The New York Times have done reports on the Hannaford system, which is believed to be the first of its type anywhere. The Times reports, for example, that items corporate producers promote as healthy, like V8 vegetable juice, Nature Valley Healthy Heart granola bars, Campbell's Healthy Request tomato soup, and Health Choice meals, are tabbed as nearly worthless—given no stars—by Hannaford because of excessive sodium.

Not surprisingly, the corporate producers of the foods hyped as nutritious and now exposed as worthless aren’t pleased. They are quoted as questioning whether Hannaford should be acting as nutritional arbiter. I wonder who’s going to win this battle. If Hannaford doesn't get intimidated, it could win, since retailers hold the balance of power in most supplier-retailer relationships. Just look at Wal-Mart. Producers need the distributors more than the other way around.

In any event, imagine a grocery store filled with nutritious products. A pretty far-fetched fantasy.
Educating Ourselves About Raw Milk By Exploring the Extremes

Two comments posted to my most recent BusinessWeek.com column--by Molly McMullen and Chris Kowakowski--essentially raise the same question: what is the real story about the safety of raw milk? I must say I've read presentations on both sides of the question, and I've found myself wondering if the writers came from different planets. Each side cites studies and quotes statistics to argue either that raw milk is a terrible safety hazard, or the equivalent of a medical miracle.

My sense is that raw milk probably falls somewhere in between. It can carry dangerous bacteria and make people sick, but if cows are fed grass-based diets and milked under sanitary conditions, the risk goes way down. It's pretty much the same story with other agricultural products, although there's an important additional proviso: Raw milk produced by small local farms is likelier, in my judgment, to be safer than the same milk produced by mega-dairies. And it's pretty much the same story with other agricultural products as well. The outbreaks of E.coli poisoning from raw spinach and hamburger seem to originate with the mega farms, and not with small localized operations.

Anyway, I recommend two reports for individuals who want to educate themselves about the pros and cons of raw milk, and the disparity of opinions. For the pros, see a presentation made to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. It argues not only that the dangers of raw milk are wildly exaggerated by government health officials and bureaucrats alike, but that pasteurized milk is as dangerous or more dangerous than raw milk.

For the opponents of raw milk, the federal Food and Drug Administration has assembled a PowerPoint presentation that sketches out all the potential dangers from raw milk.

Each is pretty well done for what it is trying to do. But in the final analysis, we each have to make our own judgments, just as we need to do with so much of nutrition and medicine.

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