A week ago, Pennsylvania dairy farmer Edwin Shank did something no other producer of raw milk in recent memory has seen fit to do: he halted sales to his more than 1,800 customers, without any urging by local regulators.
He made his decision based on private lab tests — tests over and above those periodically conducted by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture — that showed the presence of the pathogen campylobacter in one sample. While no one has reported illnesses to Shank or state authorities in the three weeks since the questionable milk went out into the marketplace, the owner of The Family Cow, the largest raw dairy east of the Mississippi with 275 cows, said he took the step out of “an abundance of caution.” [Updated, Feb. 3, 1:12 EST: On Thursday, Shank announced he had received two tests on more recent milk samples that showed no pathogens, and thus he planned to resume sales tomorrow.]
The notion of raw dairy farmers establishing their own private safety standards and testing protocols over-and-above existing state regulation is a new one in a world where there is often bitter conflict between regulators and producers. Regulators tend to be wary of raw milk, often seeing it as inherently dangerous, and producers tend to be fearful that the regulators are over-zealous in their enforcement of dairy laws and regulations.
Yet Shank’s approach, while a departure from the norm, is representative of an emerging trend among raw dairy producers, who are serving what appears to be a fast-growing market. (No one knows how many raw dairy consumers there are, though the Weston A. Price Foundation, an advocate organization, estimates 1 to 2 million.) At least three initiatives, in addition to that pushed by Pennsylvania farmer Shank, have emerged to promote the notion of raw dairy safety standards that are over and above existing regulatory protocols.
The most prominent initiative comes from an ad hoc group of raw dairy supporters pushing for national standards, led by Tim Wightman, president of the Farm-to-Consumer Foundation, an offshoot of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund. He has been working with three other raw dairy experts — a farmer, a lawyer, and a consumer activist — for more than a year to develop written standards based on the assumption that improved animal and soil health are essential underpinnings of safe milk. He says the proposed standards, which are due to be made public within a few weeks, will “set levels of known safety that can be met by any number of husbandry practices … designed to eliminate the guess work of what is safe and nutrient dense, while evaluating soil and herd health programs for the effective production of excellent, safe, raw drinking milk.”
If you listen to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, such initiatives are a waste of time, since the agency is convinced it is impossible for dairies to produce safe raw milk. The agency made this statement in January, as part of a debate in Humboldt County, Calif., about whether to permit the sale of raw milk: “The sanitary procedures described in a food safety plan under HACCP [Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points] might help to reduce the probability of raw milk contamination but they will not ensure that raw milk is pathogen-free.” The agency added:
Further, testing raw milk for the various pathogens prior to consumption can not be used as an alternative to pasteurization. The potential pathogens present in raw milk can be diverse, variable, and unpredictable … Typical milk quality indicators, such as standard plate counts and somatic cell counts, do not provide information on the presence or absence of pathogens. Seemingly high quality raw milk based on these routine quality indicators can still contain pathogen.
Not surprisingly, raw milk producers behind the safety push take sharp exception to the FDA’s assessment. They argue, first, that no food, including pasteurized milk, can ever be guaranteed pathogen-free. Scott Trautman, a Wisconsin raw milk producer who has been pushing the adoption of tough safety standards in that state, says that under the protocol he envisions, “The probability of an illness ‘event’ is reduced as close to ‘never’ as is possible.” He agrees with Wightman of the Farm-to-Consumer Foundation that animal health and safe milk go hand in hand. He also advocates complete “transparency” of the sort illustrated by Edwin Shank, the Pennsylvania dairy producer who voluntarily shut down production.
Behind the safety drive is a desire to reduce the number of illnesses from the recent 100 to 150 reported annual illnesses — not a large number in a public health system with up to 25,000 reported illnesses in recent years. The illnesses that have occurred are enough to stir the FDA and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to adamantly oppose raw-milk sales and discourage its consumption. The CDC even came out with a new anti-raw-milk website in the last week.
The producers involved in the new safety initiative worry that outbreaks associated with a few producers give all producers a black eye. “I don’t want to be penalized because some other guy isn’t doing it right,” says Scot Trautman, the Wisconsin dairy producer pushing for tough safety standards. Two weeks ago he held a pow-wow for supporters at his farm near Madison, that included Michael Schmidt, a Canadian raw dairy producer, who is behind a Canadian standards-setting effort.
Raw milk producers say their main motivation is to protect, and reassure, consumers. Initial indications are the motivation is well placed. Ed Shank of Pennsylvania reports that the reactions from consumers over this past weekend were “amazing and tremendously moving.” He forwards one response that states, “I have not ordered from you yet, but because of this I most definitely will in the future. This is EXACTLY the reason why I believe all food should be kept as local as possible and why we all have a responsibility to know where your food comes from.”
An existing customer wrote him, “Your honesty and faith make the milk sweeter! We will sorely miss the milk, but are grateful for all of you.”
Mark McAfee, owner of Organic Pastures Dairy Co., the nation’s largest raw dairy, based in California, and promoter of his own safety standards, has this prediction for Shank: “You watch …. Your sales are about to skyrocket.”