To the FDA, Question of Raw Milk Safety and Availability Is Not a Debatable Issue

The host of a Washington, DC, NPR program, Kojo Nnamdi, had a great idea for a recent show: he’d have a debate between pro and anti raw milk experts. So he invited representatives from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to join with Sally Fallon of the Weston A. Price Foundation, and include a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin as a kind of interpreter.

When show time came on Monday, everyone was there...except representatives from the FDA. According to Nnamdi, the FDA “declined to designate a representative, saying ‘this is not a debatable issue.’” Talk about arrogance. There is one view, and it’s the FDA’s view. Case closed.

So Nnamdi played the part of critical questioner, and stimulated an interesting discussion with Sally and the professor, Michael Bell, who were joined during the program by Mark McAfee of Organic Pastures Dairy Co. Listeners got to ask questions as well. I recommend listening to it if you get a chance; it's the third item down on the page. Among the points made during the program:

--The growing interest in raw milk is partly a reflection of “a lack of trust in contemporary institutions…a sense of wanting to turn to a local face-to-face society,” according to Michael Bell, the sociologist.

--Sally scolded the FDA and state agencies for relying on “science that is forty years old” to justify harsh restrictions on raw milk distribution. She said there is much recent evidence to suggest that dairies are capable of producing highly safe raw milk, via pasture feeding and sanitary processes. She repeated a point she has made previously that “we would not recommend” that consumers use raw milk “from confinement dairies.”

--Mark was questioned by Nnamdi about “four children who got sick from E.coli” last September. Mark said the situation was a classic example of the government’s tendency with raw milk to “shoot first and ask questions later.” He explained that when he heard children were sick, “I immediately recalled all of our products.” He said two of the four children “recovered at home without being treated.” The children who were hospitalized, he said, became ill from “different bacteria.” One (presumably Lauren Herzog) became ill from E.coli 0157:H7, which he suggested might have come from spinach, and the second (presumably Chris Martin) became ill “from chigella.” He added, “The state never found any pathogens in our milk.”

--Sally said the raw milk movement is “where organic food was twenty years ago.” What will it take to change government attitudes? “An outpouring of consumer demand,” she said. “It is unstoppable.”

I agree on the last point, especially after experiencing yet another example of government arrogance on an issue that should be very much debatable. The sociologist's observations about "trust" come to life.

David, this is a bit off-topic, but you are so busy writing great blog posts, I wonder, how's your cheesemaking going?

I just made fromage blanc with fresh goat milk and is it wonderful! Sort of a cross between chevre, cream cheese, and ricotta. Great with herbes de Provence and garlic or plain with the fresh figs from my tree. Super easy to make once you get the culture (mine is from NE Cheesemaking). Warm to 86 degrees (put container in sink of warm water), add culture and stir. Wait 12 hours. Strain through butter muslin or cheesecloth for 6-12 hours, depending on desired "dryness". Keeps 1-2 weeks according to my book.

Wanted to keep you encouraged to try cheesemaking if you haven't already.

I found out some interesting information today. I called PulseNet, its the division of the CDC that does Molecular Subtyping (the scientific term for blueprinting or fingerprinting) for foodborne bacterial diseases. Im still trying to find out the pattern number of the E-coli 0157:H7 that the other three children who became ill and also drank OP raw milk had in common. I was actually able to speak to a human being. She was curt and seemed bothered that I had called to ask questions, but she did give me some helpful information.

I discovered that it is very difficult to obtain the information Im looking for. I want the actual pattern number that identifies this specific strain of E-coli 0157:H7 and to also know how many children have become ill from this specific strain. First, I need to hire an attorney to get this information because e-coli was never isolated in Chris and the information I want involves other childrens medical records.

Second, my attorney would have to fill out forms from both the state of California and then the CDCFreedom of Information Act forms. From the very brief answers I was given by the woman at PulseNet, the legality of all of this stems from HIPAA laws. Unfortunately, this puts a prompt end to my investigation. I cant afford an attorney to find out this information for me. Im a little disappointed because I did want to find out the truth about the ecoli blueprints of the other sick children.

I enjoyed listening to the radio broadcast on raw milk. It was interesting to listen to Mark McAfee speak about the issue of his dairy being closed down, as well as the facts he presented about Lauren and Chris illnesses. He really shoots from the hip when he speaks.

First, he makes it seem that it was so difficult to find us; that he was unable to get information about the children who became sick after drinking OP raw milk. Stories about Lauren and Chris were in the newspaper as well as on television. Laurens full name was used as well as the hospitals name. He found out our names from Laurens father. It did not take some major investigation to find us.

Second, I think the state of California acted fairly in shutting down his dairy. You had four children who all drank OP milk on the same weekend, all became ill in the same timeframe, three of the four children were reported to have the same blueprint of Ecoli 0157:H7, and two of the four children developed HUS. His dairy wasnt closed down until it was discovered that the 3 childrens ecoli blueprints matched and Chris and Lauren both developed HUS. This took about 2 weeks.

Third, each time he tells the story about Lauren and Chris (as to what they ate that caused them to become ill) the story changes. When he visited LLUMC, he told us that Lauren also ate Sushi. Now hes saying she ate spinach. In another news story, it was hamburger. He cant seem to get his own version of the story correct.

Fourth, when I talked to him at LLUMC, I was very honest with him. At this time, my son was on a ventilator and receiving kidney dialysis. In this same time frame, a public health nurse had picked up our raw milk and spinach to be tested. I told him that I hoped the milk wasnt contaminated and that we would find out what caused Chris to become ill within a few days. I didnt feel it was fair to Mark to sling accusations at him without solid facts. I was rooting for the spinach. Unbeknownst to us, they didnt test the products because the bacteria that caused Chris to become ill were never isolated in the hundreds of bowel movements Chris experienced during the 5 days of pooping his brains out. His case wasnt a high enough priority for testing the products. They were overloaded with the spinach outbreak. Chris did not eat packaged Dole spinach, so spinach was ruled out as the cause of his illness. All the people that became ill, ate packaged spinach. Chris ate spinach from an open bin.

Fifth, Kaiser did initially diagnose Chris with Shigella. Even though they never found the bacteria, the Shiga toxin is emitted from both Shigella and E-coli. My husband is much more cynical than I am. Hes thinks Kaiser gave us the diagnosis of Shigella because they gave Chris an antibiotic when they shouldnt have. He thinks it was a CYA diagnosis. Giving an antibiotic to a child with E-coli can cause HUS. Giving an antibiotic to a child with Shigella is an acceptable mode of treatment. All the doctors at LLUMC strongly disagreed with the diagnosis of Shigella. Shigella that develops into HUS is extremely rare in the U.S. The Kaiser nephrologist even told us she had never treated a case of HUS that had developed from Shigella infection. Somehow it is on public record that Chris was diagnosed with Shigella. I received this information from Mark McAfee.

Sixth, Mark also keeps giving false information about his cows and the testing outcome. The state of California did find1 milking cow that had E-coli 0157:H7, but it was not the same blueprint as the children. And they did not test all of his cows, but most of them. This is the information I was given by the gentleman in charge of the investigation of his farm.

Seventh, Mark McAfee personally told me that all the sick children had the same blueprint of E-coli 0157:H7, as well as one child/person out of state. Patrick at the state department also stated the 3 other children had the same blueprint, but he did not mention the child/person out of state. On a post a few days ago, a woman named Amanda Rose stated that Mark told her the children didnt have the same E-coli blueprint.

If Mark has nothing to hide, why do the facts he presents keep changing?

Mary,
Would it be possible for the parents of the other children to get the information you are looking for without hiring lawyers? Does one have to file these kinds of requests to get information on your own child's illness? Or perhaps could they sign a release form saying you can see the information?

As far as finding out exactly how many got sick from the same strain........hmmm. Maybe if you could get the information on the strain number and publicize it somehow...Others who were sickened might then try to find out what strain caused their illness.

Just some suggestions to perhaps aid you in your search for information.

Mary McGonigle-Martin's picture

Evelyn..Thank you for the suggestions. Melissa, Laurens mom, could find out the pattern number because the ecoli bacteria were identified in Lauren. Shed have to be willing to fill out all the paperwork and jump through all the hoops to receive this information.

Mark McAfee has the names and contact information for the other children in San Diego that also became ill after drinking OP milk. If he doesnt have anything to hide, he could give me this information so that I can speak with the other families.

Ifwe were part of a class action law suit, this information would be available to us. Im having a hard time understanding what is so confidential about a pattern number that caused a foodborne illness and knowing how many other people also became ill. Im not asking for specific information about each child/person. I dont need names, just a count.

David Gumpert's picture

Anna,
I really appreciate the encouragement. It's going to sound lame, but I've had a note to myself to acquire cheese-making equipment ever since our discussion a couple months back (along with about four other tasks I haven't completed). But your description of the cheese you made has my mouth watering, and I am resolving to both obtain the equipment and get back to the goat farm I visited last spring. Thanks.

Hi Ken.in this situation I do believe it is about all the red tape. The first step is to contact the California Heath Department and download their Freedom of Information Act Form. Pretending the bacteria was isolated in Chris, I would contact someone at the health department that has the information about the pattern # of e-coli. I would then fill out this form with all the pertinent information and then send this form to the CDC (PulseNet division).

PulseNet keeps bacteria data from all over the US in their computer system. I would now have to fill out a CDC form (I think), another Freedom of Information Act Form, and then I could get the information Im looking for.the number of children/adults that have become ill from this same pattern of e-coli 0157:H7. All of this information is in the PulseNet database. Because they do not make this easy, I can see why you need an attorney to help navigate the way through this system.

As for the diagnosis of Shigella, Im leaning towards the cynical side of life.

Plain old HIPAA is not all that complicated. You simply need the person whose medical information is involved, to sign an "authorization" which with reasonable specificity identifies the info or category of info to be released, and to whom it is to be released. In the case of a minor, the parent/guardian would have to sign the authorization. Beyond that, it gets stickier. The "covered entity" that has the info should be able to provide the appropriate form which they require to be signed. It might be more complicated in this case if the health agency (database in this case) has the info (or has developed additional, derivitive information) only because they initially received info from the covered entity (probably the hospital) which first developed the info. The database has it pursuant to one of the public health emergency exceptions which exist under HIPAA. Hence, in this case it would be easier (under HIPAA) to get the info by an authorization sent directly to the hospital. What you want, obviously, is the combination of info that only the database has, and I'm not familiar with how you can get it from such a secondary holder of the info. Since it's public, I would imagine that a combination of a HIPAA authorization and a FOIA request ought to do it. If the public health agency (database) is saying that they have PHI (protected health information) on the kids which they (the agency) developed in the course of their analysis, then they should respond if they get a HIPAA authorization directed to them (as well as the one directed to the hospital). The public health officials are probably just not set up (have not thought through) the mechanics of how to release such info, once they obtain or develop it under the exceptions to HIPAA which they enjoy. In any case, I'd start with authorizations from the people that you do know of, directed to both the hospital and the database, together with a FOIA to the public agency, and see where it gets you. You probably will need a lawyer before it's all over to get them to do what you want them to do, particularly if they have, or have developed, PHI on individuals that you don't know and they won't even identify them.

Mary McGonigle-Martin's picture

Steve...thank you so much for this information. I didn't realize you had posted it. DG led me to it.

Thanks again!