Can Homestead Creamery Raw Milk Cheese Case Be Resolved Sensibly? Possibly, If Lawyers Move Away
It’s always dangerous from a journalistic perspective to write about a particular food safety situation in the midst of the regulatory process, especially when it involves raw milk. But in the case of the tiny Missouri raw milk cheese maker, Homestead Creamery, I’m going to give it a shot, because I started in on it in my previous post, and because the case illustrates a number of important issues in the regulatory process.
First, an update: Homestead just received its production permit back late Thursday from the Missouri Milk Board. That allows it to resume production of raw milk cheese after a two-week shutdown. However, it hasn’t yet been cleared to resume sales--either of cheese in inventory or of newly produced cheese (all of which must be aged a minimum 60 days under U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations). Still, Tim Flory, the owner, sounded more upbeat today than he did when I last spoke with him Wednesday.
FDA inspectors today concluded three days of testing of the farm’s cheese making facilities, which included taking dozens of swabs, searching for signs of pathogens. So those results, likely to take at least a few days to come through, will be important to determining when Homestead might re-open.
In the meantime, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services reported that it has confirmed one illness from E.coli 103 that has been connected via DNA fingerprinting to cheese from Homestead Creamery. There are two other possible cases of “individuals (who) later reported having similar symptoms [to the confirmed case] after consuming cheese from the same producer,” an agency spokesperson told me.
And this important proviso: “All of the individuals have recovered.”
As for the contradictions and issues highlighted in the case, here a few:
*Though this case has yet to play itself out completely, state regulators thus far appear to be treating Homestead Creamery more appropriately and fairly than they did Morningland Dairy. For example, they have only required Homestead to recall the one type of cheese implicated in the outbreak (of the dozen it produces), while Morningland was required to recall everything it had produced in the previous eight months, and to destroy everything it had in its inventory, rather than just the two cheeses originally implicated as contaminated.
*State regulators in retrospect have been careful in their reporting on events. Regulators seemed initially to be unnecessarily hedging in their initial reports, but in retrospect, it appears they were walking a fine line between informing the public of a potential food danger, and accusing the producer before evidence was in. For example, in announcing last week that Homestead had recalled the questionable cheese, the Missouri Department of Agriculture stated, “Preliminary test results received from the Missouri State Health Laboratory indicate the cheese may be contaminated with Shiga-Toxin producing E.coli, which can lead to food borne illness. Confirmatory tests are ongoing.”
*While MIssouri regulators seem to be making an effort to be responsible, the same can’t be said of a couple of the product liability and personal injury lawyers who follow these situations like hawks, in hopes of snaring ill individuals as clients to sue food producers. In my previous post, I quoted personal injury lawyer Fred Pritzker as saying he was “investigating” the Homestead situation, and invited anyone affected by it to contact him.
In the meantime, I’ve come across an even more sensationalist account from a lawyer tracking this case: Dr. Anthony Coveny, a “food poisoning attorney.” A news and entertainment site, Examiner.com, posted a video from Coveny in which he provided an “update” on the Missouri situation: “At least seven individuals have become sick, two are toddlers and one of which is still hospitalized, have come down with HUS, which is a serious disease” that can cause permanent kidney and throat damage, he stated.
“At the same time, the Missouri Milk Board has announced there is a recall” of Homestead Creamery cheese. “We are uncertain if the two outbreaks are linked...We just want to issue a cautionary note to everyone to stay away from raw milk products...It is dangerous to consume any product that is dairy based that has not been pasteurized...”
Yes, Coveny was just doing a public service issuing his “cautionary note," in a video with his firm's phone number plastered along the screen. So, now that Missouri officials aren't mentioning the toddlers Coveny was so worried about, do you think he’ll provide an update on the current situation, and perhaps clarify that the cheese producer seems not to have sickened little kids? My bet is he won’t. He and Pritzker will just move on to the next financial opportunity.
But they don’t help in these situations to achieve the necessary delicate balance--of keeping the public accurately informed about what is happening while simultaneously protecting small producers who don’t have armies of lawyers protecting their interests.