The Power of Numbers in the War Over Raw Dairy--How the CDC Came to Admit a Death Wasn't Categorized Correctly
In this age of the Internet, it's amazing how quickly certain statistics can catch on.
Take the statistic I came up with in my Feb. 11 post, after having assessed data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control--that there have been on average 39 illnesses from raw milk cheese between 2000 and 2008. It's the first time I'm aware of that anyone has presented the data that way.
Within days, National Public Radio had a story about the controversy over raw milk cheese, and included this statement, "On average, about 40 people report getting sick from raw milk cheese a year nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention." The idea was to suggest that raw milk cheese doesn't seem to present a huge public health problem.
There's another related number that has been around much longer, and it's this: Between 1998 and 2008, there have been two deaths from raw milk. This number comes up repeatedly in media reporting about raw milk, courtesy of the CDC, even though I have reported that those illnesses appear to have come from queso fresco cheese, a soft fresh cheese that isn't legal under FDA regulations requiring a minimum 60 day aging period.
The CDC hasn't responded...till now. It all came about as a result of an inquiry made by Mark McAfee, the owner of Organic Pastures Dairy Co., in December, when he challenged claims on the Centers for Disease Control web site stating that raw milk is dangerous. The agency actually agreed to make some slight changes to its language on the site, but when he inquired about statistics concerning raw milk illnesses in California, an official with the agency's Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Parasitic Diseases, Janell Routh, stated in part. "From 1998-2008, more outbreaks associated with unpasteurized dairy in California than in any other state (13). There was 1 death reported in that time, from Salmonella Typhimurium."
McAfee expressed surprise about the death. The state wasn't reporting it, he said. His requests to Dr. Routh for more information went unanswered. Finally, he threatened to file a Freedom of Information Act request.
An answer came back last week from an unnamed official of the CDC's information office (firstname.lastname@example.org): "The death mentioned in an earlier email was from an unpasteurized dairy product, queso fresco, made from raw milk."
Why is this important? Because statistics have become important weapons in the war over food rights. When the CDC says there have been two deaths from raw milk between 1998 and 2008, that statistic carries a powerful message: you can die from drinking raw milk.
Now all the CDC has to do is admit the second death was from the same cause.
If it turns out that the two people it says died from drinking raw milk didn't, in fact, die from drinking raw milk, then the CDC has lost an important weapon in the government's campaign of fear around raw milk. If no one died in that eleven-year period, suddenly, raw milk isn't quite the danger it has been made to appear. ?
It will be interesting to see how long the CDC will continue to hold onto its treasured statistics in its media handouts.
Jared Carter of Rural Vermont reports the organization "received over 200 emails from concerned community members and dozens of inquiries from the media" as a result of my previous post and other reports on the state's threats to take legal action against Rural Vermont's scheduled raw dairy classes. Rural Vermont suspended the classes. "We are working hard to protect the rights of farmers and farm consumers around this issue," said Carter. He requested that concerned consumers express their opposition to Dan Scruton in the Dairy Section of the Agency of Agriculture, 802-828-2433.