Note added September 27, 2009:
About six months before I wrote this entry in April of 2008, when I was working on the AB1735 campaign for raw milk in California, I urged Mark McAfee at Organic Pastures to make his outsourcing public by including a page on his website with the products that are made from outside dairies and with information about those dairies. I offered to write the content for him. Over the following months, our conversation continued. While I did not tell him in advance that I would be posting this particular piece, we had a six-month-long discussion of the topic.
Mark does state in the comments here that he no longer outsources, but I did confirm from him in June of 2009 that OPDC does continue to bring in outside product for butter. He purchases milk from a milk broker who brokers milk intended for pasteurization. Under California law, it is illegal for a raw milk dairy to bottle milk (whole and skim) and cream that was intended for pasteurization. There is no such reference in the law to butter, cheese, or colostrum-related products.
If you read this blog even a little bit, you know that I am pretty passionate about raw milk. I worked on California’s AB1735 campaign back in October and have the last remaining gallon of milk from the 2006 recall of Organic Pastures milk for E. coli 0157:H7. I tried to mail the milk to David Gumpert at The Complete Patient, but he thought that the existence of the milk brought too much attention to the issue of pathogens in raw milk and, later, he poked me over being too caught up in raw milk minutiae. Boy, is he right. I vowed here a month or two ago that I would stop thinking about E. coli.
My problem is that stuff just keeps coming up that nearly throws me into coronary arrest. My husband calls it “entertainment,” but raw milk doesn’t do a lot for him in the first place, so I guess he can just be entertained. I am not entertained at all.
I listened to the raw milk hearings here in the state the other night and I find it hard to listen to them without a great deal of cynicism because of the elephant in the raw milk room. In fact, I have been having a hard time not letting that cynicism eat me up. Raw milk is supposed to be health-giving, after all. For every enzyme or bacteria it may have added to my digestive system, it has stolen a second of my sleep as well, so I’ll just get to it and tell the story.
If you are arriving to the story late, I’ll include a bit of background before I get to the bad stuff.
On September 21, 2006, my sister called to tell me that Organic Pastures raw milk was recalled because of possible bacteria contamination. Surrounding that recall, six children were sickened by the pathogenic E. coli 0157:H7 and all six apparently had raw milk. I say “apparently,” because it’s actually more complicated. To the best of my knowledge, the outbreak looked like this:
6 children were sick:
4 children in southern California
2 children in central/northern California
[I edited the location of the children based on updated information from Mark McAfee in the comment below and an email from e. coli lawyer Bill Marler.]
Parents of five claimed that the child had raw food products from Organic Pastures Dairy. Parents of the sixth are customers of the dairy but insisted that the child had no raw milk before the illness.
Five of the six children tested positive for E. coli 0157:H7 and had matching genetic fingerprinting. What this means is that the same mutant strain of E. coli was found in the stools of all five children, evidence that scientists use to determine that the contamination came from one food source. One of the five children in the matching fingerprint group was the child whose parents claimed that the child had not consumed the product.
An international database of E coli strains is maintained and this strain matches no other. It matches no spinach cases.
This information is all available from a state summary report of the recall.
“The” bug not found at the dairy
If you were an E. coli 0157:H7 bug living at Organic Pastures back in the fall of 2006, a whole lot of people were looking for you. Dedicated researchers put on long gloves and stuck their arms in unmentionable parts of cows and heifers to collect stool samples. The luckier part of the research team collected dairy products off the shelf, though the products were past the cap dates of the milk in question. The milk implicated in the outbreak got squeezed out of the California cows in late August. The tested milk was produced in mid- to late-September.
From the consumer perspective at the time of the recall, it seemed like the recall happened immediately after the children were sickened, but the children came down with their illnesses in early September and the recall was issued on September 21.
No dairy products tested positive for the bug.
The stool samples told a slightly different story: regulators donned those gloves with a purpose and found 0157:H7 in several of the dairy’s animals. To reduce testing cost, the state actually collected the samples and then combined them in groups of three to make a bunch of little cow manure stews. Each stew was tested for 0157:H7 and five came back positive. The five pots of stew represented fifteen animals so the state then tested each animal’s individual contribution and found 0157:H7 in three of them.
The 0157:H7 strain(s) found in those three cows (and apparently in the previous five positive batches) did not match the pattern of the outbreak strain found in the stools of the sick children.
As an aside, the state’s data shows that it can be difficult to identify the bacteria in a cow’s stool. Apparently at least five cows were positive in the first test and only three in the second test.
The fact that the specific strain of bacteria was not found at the dairy is a key piece of evidence that supporters point to in arguing that the children must have been sickened by another source. E. coli 0157:H7 was found in the cows according to the state report (though dairy owner Mark McAfee says they were young heifers and non-milking cows), though not the strain in question. The pathogenic E. coli can mutate rapidly. The bacteria turn over about every ten minutes, giving them many opportunities to create new, distinct strains quickly. Had the strain been found at the dairy, it would have been the proverbial smoking gun. The fact that it was not found nearly two months after the outbreak is not particularly compelling in light of the matching patterns in the children.
If it wasn’t the milk, what was it?
The most popular culprit is spinach. This outbreak happened around Labor Day of 2006, back when we were all scared out of our minds to eat commercial spinach and greens. It was exactly the time of the giant spinach outbreak. Spinach would be the likely alternative culprit.
The problem with the spinach argument is that not all children ate spinach. I do not have the health records of the children but a mother of one of the children has confirmed on The Complete Patient that her child did not eat spinach. Back in the fall of 2006 state health workers would have given the parents a questionnaire of what their child had eaten recently. On the list of choices would have been all of the usual suspects in E. coli outbreaks – leafy greens, hamburger, and apparently raw milk. No other “usual suspect” linked these children. Raw milk was the only common food.
Spinach is still a possibility. The child who didn’t eat spinach could have been contaminated by a person who did eat it. There may have been other children among the six who didn’t eat spinach (again, I don’t have the records) and they could have all been contaminated by a spinach eater.
The strains found in the spinach that summer have been catalogued with all of the other strains and no known spinach strain matches the pattern of E. coli in the children. If spinach was a culprit, the particular spinach in question was never part of a larger outbreak, just these six children.
The interesting thing about outbreaks is that you don’t know at the time how many cases you are going to end up with. Back during the recall we thought that the outbreak was limited to four children sickened in southern California. While they were separated by some miles in the southern part of the state, the fact that they were all in the south made an alternative cause much more likely. At the time of the recall, I heard that there were four cases, the fingerprints of only two matched, and one ate spinach. This sure did not sound like a raw milk outbreak to me.
But something very interesting was happening as we showed up for the press conference to support raw milk and in the weeks following. (That’s me in the picture on the right looking very tired with a deadline looming the next day. Dairy owner Mark McAfee is at left.) Two other children were added to the outbreak group. One was north of Fresno, in the north-central part of the state and one lived outside of California. The two new children were matched in the outbreak group because of the E. coli fingerprint. They also strengthened the raw milk link because, in fact, they had consumed raw dairy products from Organic Pastures Dairy.
To add support to the spinach case, what we should have seen was a case or two added to the mix who matched on the fingerprint but who had not consumed raw dairy products. But the opposite happened – raw milk drinkers were added. The fact that they were geographically diverse adds to the case against the dairy. Contamination did not likely happen in transit since there would have been at least three transit paths for these families (southern California route, northern California route, and apparently a direct-from-the-dairy mail order).
“The Settlement” proves it wasn’t the dairy
Like the claim that spinach was the culprit, raw milk aficionados like to point to a settlement agreement between the CDFA and Organic Pastures as proof that Organic Pastures products were not part of the recall.
As background, the CDFA paid Organic Pastures $11,000+ in a settlement made public by the dairy and available online.
It has always seemed strange to me that a settlement that would essentially absolve the dairy would be for a meager $11,000 when the dairy’s losses in sales exceeded $200,000. What I have come to suspect is that the settlement was not over the guilt or innocence of Organic Pastures but rather, over the state’s quarantine of a whole lot of milk.
Here in California, there is a proposed law on quarantines for leafy greens that would allow for just such a reimbursement. The discussion in the Senate says that one effect of the law is to:
Specify that the state and federal government may reimburse an owner who had produce or property destroyed under the direction of a quarantine.
The “settlement” then may not be a settlement at all, just payment over spilt milk. I have put the question to some people “in the know” and have not received an answer, so we may never know for sure what the $11,000 was for.
You’ve made it through over 1,600 words to get to the good stuff. Actually, it’s really bad stuff and does not in any way help me rebuild from depression.
In response to last month’s article in the San Jose Mercury News, Organic Pastures owner Mark McAfee left a bombshell on his website:
The children that became sick in 2006 all had consumed spinach and their illnesses had an onset at the very peak of the spinach crisis. Not all of the kids drank raw milk. Some had drank raw colostrum that was not even from OPDC.
The bombshell, of course, is not that somehow this is really all about spinach, but rather that the colostrum involved in the recall did not come from Organic Pastures.
I emailed Mark to confirm that his intent was to say that he was outsourcing colostrum at the time of the 2006 recall. He confirmed the statement and left a real beauty in my email inbox.
Not only was the colostrum from another dairy, but it was from one of the most notorious dairies in California: the Vander Eyk Organic Dairy out of Pixley, California.
Perhaps you have heard of the Vander Eyk Dairy right here on this blog. My husband and I stayed up late one June evening learning video editing to get this video out with the breaking news story.
The Vander Eyk Organic Dairy is the first and only dairy in U.S. history to lose its organic certification. In documents acquired by the Cornucopia Institute, the dairy lost its certification because the lactating cows were not on pasture at the time. It had some other violations as well. I speculated a couple of months ago about whether it was in the process of recertification.
Take a moment to watch the video. If you drank raw colostrum in the summer of 2006, it likely came from cows at the Vander Eyk dairy.
Industrial colostrum and risk assessments
If your child drank raw colostrum from Organic Pastures around Labor Day of 2006, your child likely drank raw colostrum from the Vander Eyk Dairy. For a movement that prides itself on pasture-based dairies, this news is shocking. Parents made risk assessments during the summer of 2006 based on claims across the Internet that milk from grass-fed cows was safe from pathogens. Some parents picked up a bottle of industrial colostrum off the shelf to feed to their immune-depressed children and had no idea that the colostrum came from an industrial dairy.
One mom, Mary McGonigle-Martin was reaching for a carton of milk that same month. In another discussion of this outbreak, Mary recalls her thought process in purchasing the milk that she believes made her son ill:
“…sometime in the Spring of 2006 our local health food store began carrying Organic Pastures raw milk and raw milk products. I was surprised and excited to see that raw milk products were available in California again. Every morning my son’s nose would be clogged up. I was convinced it was due to drinking pasteurized milk. Looking at the raw milk sitting on the self and reading the OP signs hanging on the windows as you walk in the store advertising relief from allergies, etc… if you use this milk, I began contemplating a switch to OP raw milk. However, I didn’t do it right away. The Alta Dena Dairy Salmonella outbreak was always in the back of my mind. I kept thinking, what if I gave this milk to Chris and he became ill from a pathogen. I did this metal dance for about 3 months. I’d pick the milk up off the shelf and then put it back thinking I probably shouldn’t take the risk. Someone told me about Joe Mercola’s website and he is totally pro raw milk. I went to OP’s website and read all their information. Mark McAfee tests every bottle. I finally felt safe enough to try it.”
Mary’s son Chris was hospitalized for six weeks, suffered renal failure, and is suing the dairy for losses. The interesting thing about the literature that caused Mary to buy milk for her son is that it stresses that the milk comes from cows on pasture. A unique marketing position of Organic Pastures Dairy is its mobile milking unit, a moveable milk barn that allows cows to stay on pasture while the dairy comes to them. On their website, Organic Pastures describes their technology:
Organic Pastures Dairy invented and built the first and only mobile dairy barn of its kind in North America. The unique pasture-based mobile dairy produces milk which is naturally low in bacteria, while keeping the cows and dairy clean, green, and happy.
The unique system of Organic Pastures Dairy and, in fact, the name of the brand itself is what leads many consumers to purchase the product. The product label states under every product name:
100% pasture grazed
Of course, Organic Pastures cows receive grains, a factoid found with some hunting on their website, but the apparent high grass content of the diet offers consumers what is nearly a product warranty:
In summary, it has been theorized that the combination of grass feeding, no antibiotics used, no hormones, and low levels of grain used in diet cause a change in the cows immune system and rumen. This change in physiology directly inhibits pathogen development in the milk (actually a transfer from environmental contamination that does not seem to occur; there are no bad bugs in the manure that transfer into the milk and the clean raw milk is highly pathogen resistant).
The warranty comes with a disclaimer on the same page:
Because OPDC can not predict the future and know what is yet to come, it is possible that someday a pathogen may be detected in an OPDC product.
All told, the reader is left with the strong impression that cows in a pasture-based system produce clean, healthful milk.
In fact, in the recent request for a Temporary Restraining Order in California over the AB1735 legislation, Mark McAfee refers to research provided by the state on pathogens in milk. He says on page 2 lines 4-6:
I agree that the type of milk referred to … should be pasteurized before consumed because that type of milk is contaminated with filth, feces, contaminants and pathogens that cause illness to humans.
What “type of milk” is Mark McAfee referring to?
Mark is referring to milk produced in industrial dairies that is intended for pasteurization. Many dairy studies are conducted on regular, ole bulk tank milk, not on milk from a pasture-based dairy. That’s Mark’s beef with the studies: his dairy products are different. It is industrial milk that is contaminated, not milk from a pasture-based system.
Mark’s statement to the court suggests that milk intended for pasteurization from places like the mammoth Vander Eyk Dairy should never be consumed as a raw dairy product. Such a product “is contaminated with filth, feces, contaminants and pathogens that cause illness to humans.”
Industrial cow colostrum sure does sound like something Mark doesn’t think should be bottled at a raw milk dairy. Most of the raw milk community would be scandalized to find out that products from an industrial dairy were being bottled as raw and carried the label “100% pasture grazed.” Most would never pay upwards of $20 gallon for industrial “Super Leche” and yet, apparently, many consumers did just that in the summer of 2006.
Should the Vander Eyk Dairy have been tested?
Colostrum is a strange thing here in California because, even though you can squeeze it out of a teat of a cow, it is not considered a dairy product. A colostrum product (“Super Leche”) was one of the products implicated in the outbreak cluster and yet it is not a food at all. Under California law, milk cannot be mingled with colostrum. In fact, dairy legislation prohibits it from being sold to consumers. Organic Pastures’ license to sell colostrum comes not from the CDFA but from the Department of Public Health. Even though it emerges from the teat of a cow, it is a “food supplement,” not a dairy product.
When the CDFA entered the farm to test the cows after the 2006 E. coli outbreak, why would Organic Pastures “give up” the fact that they outsourced one of the outbreak products from another dairy? The product was a food supplement after all. CDFA should not have been concerned about the colostrum and there would be no reason for Organic Pastures to mention that they purchased it from a whole other dairy. Right?
Of course, the colostrum “supplement” gets bottled at the same plant as items defined as “dairy products” under California law and certainly cross-contamination is possible. The “Super Leche” product involved in the recall is even bottled in the same type of bottle as regular milk. From the consumer point of view, this particular nutritional supplement is produced in the mammary gland of a cow, gets dumped into the same sort of bottle with the same equipment, and it could well have carried the deadly pathogen strain in the 2006 recall.
Dairy owner Mark McAfee argues that the source of the colostrum in the recall is evidence that the pathogen DID NOT come from his dairy. It surely is too bad he did not mention the outsourcing at the time or we might actually have a clear idea of where the bug DID come from. The smoking gun could have been right there in an industrial dairy lot in Pixley and the link between Organic Pastures and the sick children may have been made more directly way back in 2006. (Or it is possible it came from his dairy but was gone by the October stool tests.)
One key piece of evidence the dairy holds on to in the 2006 outbreak case (over which there is currently a lawsuit) is that the actual outbreak strain was not found at the dairy. It has become a repetitive refrain of the movement:
The pathogen was not found at the dairy.
I ask: “Why didn’t the state test all of the dairies involved?” The answer is that the state apparently did not know another dairy was involved. Neither did we consumers who showed up at the press conference back in 2006.
The core issue: Processor integrity
I pick on the Vander Eyk Dairy a lot around here and I just want to make known my opinion that this issue has nothing to do with the Vander Eyks or their business. They are doing their thing. Organic Pastures owner Mark McAfee has toured their facility and knows what their thing is. Most of the organic community knows what their thing is.
This story is not even a raw milk story, though it involves a raw milk producer.
This story is a food processor integrity story.
If I buy a product from a processor and that processor tells me that the product comes from a cow on grass, I expect that the product comes from a cow on grass.
We know that the Organic Pastures label “100% pasture grazed” does not mean that they receive only growing grass for their nourishment: the website does claim that the cows are fed grain.
For a long time I assumed that the label meant that the cows have access to pasture 100% of the time. We know that in the Vander Eyk case, only non-milking portions of their herd were on pasture. It is then an open question what the Organic Pastures label actually means.
Whatever the label does mean, by golly, you would think it would mean that some pasture is involved.
Many raw milk consumers make a point of avoiding raw products from industrial dairies. Mark himself said that the dairy products coming from industrial dairies “is contaminated with filth, feces, contaminants, and pathogens that cause illness to humans.”
A pasture-based dairy system is supposed to protect the milk from pathogens and yet Organic Pastures apparently has commingled its own product with products from dairies that have no pasture whatsoever.
Raw milk consumers also make a strong point of knowing where their milk comes from. For a producer to encourage consumer tours of the facility and then to outsource product from the most notorious organic dairy in the state is an egregious violation of raw milk code of ethics. The outsourcing continued (from another dairy source) and caused a listeria recall in September of 2007. Last I asked some weeks ago, Organic Pastures was still using outsourced product to make butter. I asked Mark if he used outsourced product for kefir, cheese, or skim milk and he did not provide me with the courtesy of a response. I saw a bulk tank deliver milk twice last fall, so a lot of product was coming in at that time in any case and was being used for something.
Where do your raw dairy products come from? Where did they come from? If you buy from Organic Pastures, you might want to ask.
I want to thank Mark for bottling a product self-described as laden with “filth, feces, contaminants, and pathogens.”
Thank you for marketing that same product to my young son as a health food.