Caught in the Middle: A TN Raw Milk Farmer Agonizes About Serving Multiple Masters
“It’s frustrating,” says Marcie McBee. “I can’t fix something I can’t find. I can’t fix something they can’t find.”
The 36-year-old owner of McBee Dairy in Mascot, TN, is referring to the allegations that her dairy’s milk was responsible for nine illnesses from E.coli O157:H7, including three children who were hospitalized. Through her comments on this blog, following my previous post, McBee provided a sense of some of her frustration around getting at the causes of the problems that may have occurred at her dairy. In a couple of conversations I had with her yesterday and today, she provided additional insights.
Especially upsetting to McBee is the case of a five-year-old girl who remains hospitalized and on dialysis, with hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). (The girl’s family has put up a Facebook page, “Praying for Maddie.”)
According to McBee, the two other children who were hospitalized have been released and are well on their way to recovery.
McBee is relieved the state on Friday reinstated the dairy to resume distributing raw milk to about 200 families via a herdshare. But she remains deeply troubled about Maddy, and the inconsistencies and confusion the case illustrates.
On the one hand, the little girl’s family is understandably upset. According to McBee: “The family got very angry at us. They wonder, ‘Why don’t you fix it?’ It is hard for them. I hate it. There is not a lot you can do but pray.”
McBee has been similarly frustrated with the state’s approach to the illnesses. “I want to know as much as anyone else where this is coming from,” she says of the E.coli O157:H7. She feels the state’s approach to the case hasn’t been as focused as it should have been on trying to get to the bottom of the illnesses. “Are you investigating me, or are you trying to find the bug?” she asks.
The indications she has received is that the state has been focused more on investigating her. While the state took milk and manure samples from some of her 24 milking cows (all of which have come back negative for E.coli O157:H7), the initial probe focused on her customer list. McBee declined to provide the list until the state had come up with evidence linking her farm to the illnesses; eventually, the state obtained a search warrant to obtain the list, and at the end of last week came to her farm to forcibly obtain the data.
Even while the state was pushing to link McBee with the illnesses, her customers were pressuring her and the state to get the milk flowing again. Many peppered county health officials with calls.
McBee made an observation that other raw dairy owners have made about the pent-up demand that occurs following a dairy’s shutdown: “People are hot for their milk. The government is biting themselves in the toe. People want it. If the government says it is going to kill you, people say, ‘I want that.’ “
McBeel told me she lost at least two herdshare members as a result of this episode. One told her he couldn’t afford the milk any longer and another “couldn’t stand worrying about her children.”
Yet McBee said she retains complete confidence in the milk her dairy produces, to the extent that her three young children continue to drink it.
One of the most intriguing outcomes of the case is that the court order re-opening the dairy orders her to “cooperate with the University of Tennessee Agriculture Extension Office’s food safety expert in the provision of education regarding dairy operation best practices.” The public health community, led by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, has actively worked to prevent dairies from obtaining food safety guidance. It's difficult to know whether the University of Tennessee even has experts who can provide serious guidance of use to a raw dairy owner. Does this order represent a shift by the public health community in sanctioning educational outreach for raw dairies...or is it just an aberration?
I’d say from the reaction of the 1,000 or so people who watched the big GMO "Debate of the Decade" put on by the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, it did a lot of entertaining, and even some educating. I sure had a lot of fun in my referee get-up, and Joel Salatin and Joe Mercola looked like they were having fun as well, even when they were generating some serious sparks. There is an excellent wrapup of the debate at Activist Post--more complete than I can provide at this late hour.