Caught in the Act: Lori and Darren McGrath Gain Support for a Bogus Listeria Finding in NY

Practically a year to the day after I wrote about the suspicious finding by New Yorks Department of Agriculture and Markets of listeria monocytogenes in the raw milk produced by Lori and Darren McGraths Autumn Valley Farm in Worcester, the agency has come up with a second identical finding.

Last Friday, it put out one of its scarlet lettersa press release announcing the finding that gets picked up and posted by the legal low lives of the world, never to be taken downsaying the agencys lab had found listeria and the McGraths were halting sales of raw milk.

Only this time, the agency has a problem. The McGraths learned a hard lesson from their experience last July, and resolved to do split-sample tests of everything the state took for testing. So a sample from the same batch of raw milk that NY Ag & Markets took on July 22 went off to an independent lab in Ithaca, NY, hired by the McGrathsa lab that does any number of state-mandated tests as well.

The results just came back from the independent lab and, you guessed it, no sign of listeria monocytogenes.

Needless to say, Lori is pretty upset, since she and Darren not only face the loss of business from having to halt sales of raw milk, but a fine from the agency as well. And, of course, no one has become ill, just as no one became ill during last summers episode. I dont understand how there can be such a discrepancy, she says.

She adds that the customers she has called to inform of the states finding, under requirement by the state, haven't even considered discontinuing consumption of Autumn Valley's raw milk. All these people are continuing to drink it.

Lori says she knows well the dangers of listeria monocytogenesthat it can kill children, and cause miscarriages in pregnant women. I am a mother. If I thought for a second that a child would get sick, I wouldnt be doing thisYou try your very best because you are feeding babies and children.

Why would NY Ag & Markets be coming up with false positives? Lori doesnt want to speculate, but I will. There is a movement in New York to legalize retail sales of raw milk, including a legislative proposal, as I reported last month. If and when hearings are held, NY Ag & Markets wants all the scare story ammunition it can possibly muster to defeat any such movement it doesnt control with an iron fist.

Adding insult to injury, its very difficult to get judges to rule against state agencies on the basis of test result discrepancies, says Gary Cox, a lawyer for the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, since scientists can point to differences in lab techniques to create doubts among judges. Justice is definitely in short supply for New Yorks producers of raw milk, and NY Ag & Markets is definitely in a trampling mood.

If my memory is correct last year the same story played out here in Pa. A farmer also sent his own milk samples to a private lab and the results also conflicted with the "stated" results from the enforcers lab. Someone is lying or the labs are unreliable. Two different states same story. HUM
Mark Twain said there are liars and there are dam liars.

A friend of mine with a raw milk permit says when they come to test her milk one of the things they test is the temperature of the product in the bulk tank. The guy pulls a thermometer out of his back pocket, sticks it in the milk to get his reading, and back in the pocket goes the thermometer. Hmmmm...might that not be a good way to spread some bad bacteria around to those not having it. Maybe his pocket should undergo a coliform test for sterilization!

Our creamery collects samples via the milk truck drivers - and we hope we are there when the samples are taken so we can monitor the collection. We've seen them take a tissue out of their shirt pocket to wipe the measure stick (we hope it hasn't been used before) put the samples into the (clean we hope) container they are holding with their bare (unwashed) hands , etc.etc. One of our truck drivers eats constantly since he quit smoking - so I bet he has all sorts of food bac on his hands. If we do run a high count the inspector may come and take the sample himself - with not much different technique, results are within norms, and they just can't figure out where the high count came from - but they keep looking ! I remember once the inspector came and insisted we were missing something - so we let him go thru the entire system .To his embarrassment he couldn't find anything , yet he would not even consider that someone in the lab or the driver mishandled the sample. They even tried to blame us for tainting a whole load (high bac) just because we were the last farm picked up so it had to be us - again tests proved us clear. I am truly in favor of split sampling . We need to keep on top of the NY raw milk issues , as California and NY seem to set the scene for the rest of the nation. The regulators know if they control these two key states , the rest will follow along. We sell to a creamery commercially ,yet we are considered a small dairy. We've had our run ins with the inspectors etc, so I know what the raw dairies are dealing with. Sometimes it feels as if they are looking for a reason to get rid of us smaller dairies (which are clean and well run) in favor of the big farms because the trucks don't have to go far to get a full load.I hope we can sell direct to consumer someday - would be nice to get rid of truck issues, and the fear that they are mishandling our milk . My feeling is that once it has been loaded onto the creamery's truck it is not my responsibility any more - but to hold them accountable is very difficult if not impossible.

Sylvia Gibson's picture

A real farmer;

Is this where you do a video of the collecting process- from start to finish on your property?

Broadcasting techniques for the public to see, may force proper technique. But then again, maybe not.

Maybe showing the state/federal/truckers collectors doing the collection at the same time as you or whomever you use for your own counts...the contrast would be amazing.

It's suspicious, as well, that the state's false positives seem to be taken (by design?) when the weather is warmer. If the state is looking for bad-results ammunition as David suggests, the likelihood that sloppy testing procedures (described by a real farmer) and warm weather will combine to kick off a problem before the sample even reaches the lab. Do the truckers have sample refrigerators in their cabs?

Amanda Rose's picture

Did they actually conduct similar tests?

Amanda Rose's picture

Steve,

If the competitive exclusion argument holds, warm samples filled with beneficial bacteria should reduce the listeria, not increase it, no?

Amanda

don neeper's picture

Amanda,

The FDA guidelines have a zero-tolerance policy for l. Monocytogenes, which means that finding even one active or dead CFU is grounds for a contamination alert. Warm conditions will encourage the growth of all probiotic and pathological bacteria, and while over time the probiotics will out-compete the bad bugs if the test is performed quickly enough it may still detect a handful of listeria cells.

The FDA guidelines also call for "enriching" the sample with specific chemicals that encourage the growth of l. Monocytogenes and deactivate the protection mechanisms in the milk, and then culturing the sample at over 80 degrees for 48 hours. This process bears no relation to how the milk is handled in the real world, and goes a long way towards explaining why no-one gets sick from the "contaminated" milk.

i would encourage all farmers to insist on "split" samples, which means that when the regulator collects a sample he/she pours half of the sample into their own collection container and then pours the other half into a collection container of the farmer's choosing. that way, the "one" sample is "split" into two samples. the regulator takes their sample to the lab of their choosing while the farmer takes his/her sample to their own lab. that way, discrepancies and errors between samples can be measured. that's the way they do it with epa and that's the way ag depts should do it as well. insist on it.

Our inspector takes our samples from the bulk tank. He is, and always has been, professional and meticulous in his procedure. It is my understanding if a milk sample reaches the lab above a certain temperature, technically the lab is not supposed to test that sample and another must be extracted.
Also, printed on our lab results is the temperature of the milk being tested.
While I do not have any objection to any variety of testing, whether required by the State or requested by a customer, I do have considerable objection to inaccuracy of any degree.
As most permitted raw milk farmers we work ardously to maintain the utmost health of our herd, barn and milking parlor.
If we cannot trust test results how would we ever know if there was a true problem and/or how to resolve the issue?
Interesting to me that most of our local friends and long time farmers know exactly why we are being subjected to such annoyance. Needless to say, they won't be applying for raw milk permits. These folks were raised in farm families long before we came to Worcester, and were all raised on real milk.

David, thank you for printing the truth.

Sylvia,

Great idea about the video - our trucker decided to pick up at 2 am - we can't be there at that hour , tho we will be insisting on a more "normal" time for pick-up simply because we don't like people on our property at that hour.

The samples are stored in the back of the truck in a "cooler" and travel around with the truck to the different stops until it gets to the creamery, so has ample opportunities for things to go wrong.

We have also had issues with our load testing positive for antibiotics which turned out to be the new extra sensitive digital testing equipment the lab recently acquired - we have Jerseys and the high butterfat triggered false positives. It took the lab a while to admit that and several calls to the equipment manufacturer ... so when the state insists on a "new test" or "upgrade" to more sensitive equipment we hold our breath for the next mess-up.

The next issue is a lack of true independent labs. Many are affiliated with govt. grant colleges and are interconnected. Research them out well. And though I do not disagree with students working in the labs - I think they need to be monitored very closely as they are after all still learning and our livelihoods are affected by their mistakes. I just hope someone is teaching them to care.

Amanda Rose's picture

Don or Lori,

Do you happen to know if the tests in this situation were the same? I can appreciate the frustration of finding "a little bit" of something, but if the tests in question were actually different tests and one found nothing and one "a little bit," how can we really compare the two results? What if one was a screening test?

Amanda

Sylvia Gibson's picture

I would strongly question the accuracy of a "cooler" and also the training any of the collector had. I'd check the regulations and point out each infraction in writing and/or on the camera. Pictures say 1000 words.

Sorry Amanda I dont have any hard info on the test performed by the farmers lab or the state lab that took place here in Pa. last year. The info I received was from a farmer that had spoken directly to the victumized farmer. I will try to obtain updated info.

Amanda,

To the best of my knowledge, the tests for listeria either shows its presence or not. There are specific tests that cam be done to determine the quantitative amount of listeria and/or viability of cells. These specific tests are not routine as per the zero tolerance law, but can be done.
There was a "suspicious buzz" amongst raw milk farmers at the time of our testing. To protect ourselves further, we also took a sample 24 hours later from another milking and had that tested. Again, it was negative.

Amanda Rose's picture

Lori,

Can you use the same lab as the state, perhaps under another name?

Do you happen to know if your lab at least cultures the sample for as long?

Amanda

I think it would be good to elaborate on the "enrichment" process. Samples are exposed to a media containing antibiotics that Listeria are immune to for hours before truly being cultured and tested. This step effectively eliminates other competing organisms.

Is the culturing test for listeria monocytogenes (since several of the other listeria strains are not a risk) performed on raw milk which is intended for pasteurization? If not, this would explain how last year in Massachusetts the listeria m. which survived faulty pasteurizing, then went on to be a killer of several people who drank pasteurized milk. Similarly, the suppression of competing organisms (the better to hunt down listeria m.) in raw milk would tend to explain why, if some cultured listeria m. is found, nevertheless in the vast majority of such cases the discovery happens where there has been no report of illness from people drinking the raw milk: the competing organisms are doing their job and overwhelming the bad actors. This is a perfect example of how reductionist scientific methods (here, literally reducing the competing organisms) can get the right answer to the wrong question. It would seem, the better allocation of testing resources, would be to use such testing on pasteurized milk, deli meats and other foods where there is an absence of beneficial competing organisms, and therefore a higher risk of the listeria m. surviving to inflict harm.

This is exactly why I'm not a fan of HACCP programs. Don't tell people how to produce a product if the product they produce is of high quality. Test the product - not the facility or the process. The latter two aren't ingestable.

Does a farmer have any recourse if a state test has a "positive" result and their private test is negative and the state shuts them down?

Sylvia Gibson's picture

http://google-sina.com/2008/07/20/tomato-farmers-sour-grapes/

Rob, I didn't see anything about the farmers obtaining recourse, only that the potential is there.

http://tampabay.bizjournals.com/tampabay/stories/2006/03/20/story4.html

I did skim over this, and I will avoid tomatoes from them. If it had been raw dairy they'd have been shut down.

Kirsten makes a good point. I agree that when it comes to quality, the product is more important than the process.

According to the Journal of Dairy Science article, "Practical Food Safety Interventions for Dairy Production", HACCP programs(originally designed for NASA), are more appropriately suited to food processing plants than at the farm level. The article goes on to admit what many of us believe; "There is ample evidence that microbial contamination of milk can be controlled by the use of standardized best management practices."

Because of the limitations of HACCP at the farm level, the article concludes that widespread adoption is unlikely for the dairy industry. An alternative approach is described as "Hurdle Technology", or the application of selected hurdles to microbial growth, and necessary processing steps. "The basic concept of hurdle technology is to produce an environment that is hostile to the growth of microorganisms."

It is unfortunate that many believe regulations like HACCP will guarantee food safety. Experience keeps proving it doesn't. Hurdle technology seems like a more common sense approach, at least for small farms.

The article can be found here
http://jds.fass.org/cgi/content/full/86/13_suppl/E1#LEISTNER-2000It

Amanda Rose's picture

It strikes me that none of us know much about the different tests or what tests were actually used in these instances. If these were similar tests and the state is getting false positives, perhaps the community needs to push authorities to use better tests. It's also possible that the listeria test is more sensitive than the tests for other pathogens. We may only know about the other pathogens because someone actually did get sick. Who knows? I don't know, but this strikes me as a good research area for someone qualified.

Amanda

Amanda,

I don't know what you mean by "qualified" individuals, but there is plenty of info about pathogen testing procedures on the web. Also, you could FOIA various state agencies to see what methods they used, but I doubt there are many alternatives.

Wow. 24 posts, and none by cp, cr or Marler. That is highly unusual. I'm all for videotaping, and even hidden cameras. Baby monitors work too - we use them for goat kidding season. Walmart sells a reasonable wireless system. We have a 4-wheeler problem here and have a neighbor who swears her son never comes to our farm. We've caught him scouting at the top to see if the gate we put in is open. If I were a raw milk farmer having a bulk tank tested, with a risk of losing my livelihood, in the current climate, a video camera is justified.

Gwen

Most digital cameras will take at least a couple of minutes of videos. More competent video cameras can be had in the range of $100-200. The ability to reload tape or disk is important, since the shooting time of combination still/video cameras is likely too short for an event that may go on for more than a few minutes. Also, detail that might be important could easily get lost in the sometimes-poor quality (especially when the image is enlarged) available from small combination camera/video units.

Just saw this...Monsanto to sell off rBGH
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/07/business/07bovine.html

Sylvia Gibson's picture

"Monsanto officials said the decision was not related to the retail trend and that business for the artificial hormone, sold under the brand name Posilac, remained brisk. Monsanto, declined to provide sales numbers.

Selling Posilac will allow Monsanto to focus on the growth of its core seeds and traits business"

I find it hard to believe anything from this company. "focus on its seeds"? OMG I need to find heirloom seeds that they having contaminated yet.

Gwen,

Where's the other side? Gone. Guess you won - and we're pleased. Hardly, but the pressure from both "sides" to keep this debate polarized has made it impossible for people interested in communication to talk.

Sylvia Gibson's picture

To debate something, aren't opposing factions required? If all were in agreement, what would there be to debate?

I don't see where it is "impossible for people interested in communication to talk". Would you explain what you mean?

The atmosphere was rude and non-debatable - just a place for people to agree with themselves, and disagree with insults at the expense of others with a different opinion.

Sylvia Gibson's picture

Even with face-to-face conversations there will be those who are considered rude. It's a choice to ignore that person and/or that part of the conversation. No point in letting it become personal.

An example: Mr. Marler, I do agree with some of what he has said, yet I have found him to be rude in the past. I rarely respond to his posts. It's a choice.

I believe that one of the main things anyone wants to "win"; is the right to choose how we live our life to include what we consume. That is when we all win.

Amanda Rose's picture

Kirsten,

That would sure be a start if we knew what the tests were.

Does the state not provide a lab report? Does the farmer's lab not provide one? Is this information really not available?

Amanda

Amanda Rose's picture

Just to clarify, I am a social scientist and not really qualified to study this particular issue. But if it's got legs, it could be very big for the movement. If the state got a false positive (as opposed to the dairy getting a false negative), there are definite grounds for a lot of fuss.

I don't comment very often, but this is becoming a pattern. State tests for pathogens, finds something, tells dairy stop distributing, later confirmation of that initial test, subsequent testing, or independant testing doesn't find the organisms.

Lots of explainations, some of them "good" due to variation in testing.. Some "??" due to agendas of the regulators.

I think more attention needs to be addressed o the more conspicious discrepency.... Even when there is no other sample that tests negative, in all of these cases the ultimate and most scientific test is actually being performed. In ALL cases, by the time the regulators notify the dairy that they should stop distributing, all of the milk that was sampled has already been distributed. And additional tanks of milk distributed. And families (of all sorts ) have already drunk the milk. And often all of the distributed milk has been consumed. And I am unaware of ANY examples of ANYONE becoming sick! And I tend to watch these cases. So here is the real disconnect. Dairies are being forced/intimidated to stop distributing their milk because of a health risk, but there isn't any illness. This is what I am focusing on. Lots of possible explainations. Two I will suggest as starters. 1) the amount of pathogen in the milk is inadequate to cause illness (remember most people who get raw milk don't just drink one glass we all drink lots) 2) The "pathogen" detected is present but it isn't virulent. Lots of research showing that only SOME subtypes of the recognized pathogens account for the clinical cases. So where is the public health concern?

Ted

Sylvia,

My experience with these anti-raw milk zealots is that when you disagree with them they don't like it. They consider their opinion the correct one and when their opinion is picked apart by the correct data they become angry and rude.

They then say how these farmers will be ligated out of existance. When they find out there is little or no chance of winning these meritless suits, that line will end.

You are right. It is about freedom of choice.

For those anti raw milk people out there you should know that you have already lost the battle. If you want to influence public health get on board and work with the farmers and those who want these products available. Stop the harassment and the repeating of the same old lies and misinformation.

That way we all win, especially the children who really need this life giving food.

Amanda Rose's picture

Ted,

Do you know if in this case, with a split sample, whether the same assay was used by the two labs?

Amanda

I do not trust NY Ag and Markets. A few years back, I had done the NPIP (National Poultry Improvement Plan) for the birds I had, as I was starting to get out of state buyers. BIG MISTAKE!!!!

I had my chickens and such and was selling locally for 2 years before I joined this program, with absolutely no problems whatsoever. Within the SAME year I signed up for this program, most of my birds were stolen, and by people who knowe what they were taking.

If I had been having theft problems before, I would not think twice. But I just found it awfully coincidental that my problems started once I became involved in that program through ag and mkts.