Raw Milk, the FDA, and the E. coli Outbreak

On April 19th, the Federal Food and Drug Administration filed a complaint  against Pennsylvania Amish dairy farmer Dan Allgyer, alleging that he had violated federal law by delivering raw milk across state lines. The milk was being purchased on a regular basis by a cooperative of buyers in Maryland, a state that has outlawed the sale of raw milk within its own borders. It is legal to sell raw milk in Pennsylvania, but a violation of interstate commerce laws to deliver it to buyers in other states. According to Dara A. Corrigan, the FDA’s associate commissioner for regulatory affairs,  “Drinking raw milk is dangerous and [it] shouldn’t be consumed under any circumstances…[the] FDA has warned the defendant on multiple occasions that introducing raw milk into interstate commerce is in violation of Federal law.”

However, despite their claims about the danger of drinking raw milk, the FDA could not point to any cases of foodborne illness arising from the consumption of Allgyer’s milk. In fact, raw milk in Pennsylvania is already highly regulated.  More than 110 farms in Pennsylvania have raw milk permits that are only maintained via regular and rigorous testing for the kinds of bacteria that cause foodborne illness. As Adam Helfer of the Washington Times pointed out,

 

“The confusion seems to arise from the FDA not understanding and differentiating between conventional milk (which needs to be pasteurized for safety) and raw milk from healthy, pastured animals and clean conditions. It is to be noted that grass-fed raw milk has been consumed safely by cultures for thousands of years.”

 

Cows fed on grass, their natural food, and raised in their traditional environment (open pasture) with plenty of space to graze, are consistently healthy, unlike their factory-farmed, grain-fed counterparts. As a result, their milk is not only more nutritious, but contains significant quantities of beneficial bacteria and enzymes, which protect the milk from pathogenic bacteria. Instead of putrefying, raw milk from healthy cows simply sours over time, as the beneficial bacteria proliferate, and ultimately turns into buttermilk, yogurt and cheese. While raw milk from factory farmed cows would be very risky to drink, raw milk from healthy cows is practically impossible to contaminate, and does not need to be pasteurized.

It all comes down to the question of whether the cows are healthy, and closely monitored – standards which are easily achieved on a small family farm like Dan Allgyer’s.  If these conditions are met, raw milk is vastly superior to pasteurized (whether organic or factory farmed – though organic and pasteurized is superior to factory farmed and pasteurized), both in terms of nutrition and taste, which is why growing numbers of people are choosing to purchase it. The FDA, in ignoring this distinction, conflates all raw milk as equally dangerous, regardless of the cow it came from. Consequently, the FDA considers it necessary to take away our freedom to purchase raw milk.

In an attempt to be generous to the FDA, one could say that they are being busybodies only out of a sincere desire to protect our health. They may be trying to control what we can eat and drink, but at least it is with our best interests at heart. However, not only does the FDA permit the sale of cigarettes and alcohol – both of which, if consumed too frequently, are actual health hazards, unlike raw milk from grass-fed cows – the FDA even overlooks the dangers it has admittedly identified in pasteurized milk.

In January of this year, the New York Times reported that the FDA, each year, finds illegal levels of antibiotics in older dairy cows that are destined for the slaughterhouse. The big dairy companies regularly dose their cows with antibiotics because the factory-farm conditions in which these cows live are so unhealthy – and the cows’ diets are so poor – that they are sick almost every day of their lives.  Since it stood to reason that the dangerously high levels of antibiotics the FDA found might be in the dairy cows even while they are producing milk for human consumption, the FDA was considering testing the milk from the large dairy farms that were the sources of the high-antibiotic cows destined for the slaughterhouse.

However, the FDA’s proposal met with strong resistance from the pasteurized dairy industry. Why? Ostensibly because the testing would take long enough that milk from the cows being tested would have to be put on the market in the meantime. And if the milk turned out to be contaminated with antibiotics, it would then have to be recalled, costing dairy producers millions and harming their reputations. To quote from the New York Times article,

 

“What has been served up, up to this point, by Food and Drug has been potentially very damaging to innocent dairy farmers,” said John J. Wilson, a senior vice president for Dairy Farmers of America, the nation’s largest dairy cooperative. He said that that the nation’s milk was safe and that there was little reason to think that the slaughterhouse findings would be replicated in tests of the milk supply.

 

The danger to us, of course, is that by consuming too many antibiotics in milk, we could not only weaken our own immune systems but also further the evolution of drug resistant strains of bacteria. In fact, one impetus for the new testing is that the antibiotics for which the FDA currently tests are no longer the only ones in use by dairy farmers. Why are so many new antibiotics being used? Because the most common ones are losing their effectiveness as those drug resistant strains of bacteria develop. If there was ever a situation for the FDA to step in this was it. Unfortunately, all the dairy industry had to do was send a “sharply worded letter” to the FDA to get them to withdraw their testing plan for indefinite review.  That means anyone who is drinking conventional pasteurized milk may be drinking a product too dangerous to be on store shelves.

So is the FDA really looking out for us? Or are they just looking for easy targets? It seems that any segment of the food industry that is large and influential is safe from oversight, but a single Amish farmer working hard to provide the highest quality of milk to his small group of buyers is Public Enemy #1. Perhaps the fact that his business is a threat to the big dairy industry is the real reason why scrutiny is on him.

What does the future hold? Marylanders, and residents of other states, who would like to choose raw milk, may have fewer and fewer options.  Congressman Ron Paul has introduced a bill, HR 1830, that would allow the shipment and distribution of unpasteurized milk and milk products for human consumption across state lines; however, the bill is unlikely to pass.  Conventional pasteurized milk will continue to dominate the market for the foreseeable future, and because it achieves its artificially low prices based on unnatural factory farming (helped out by government subsidies on the grains and soybeans it feeds the cows), it will continue to need to pump its animals full of antibiotics just to keep them alive. Those antibiotics will also continue to give rise to new strains of drug-resistant pathogens. There’s one in particular that you might be reading about in the news lately: E. coli O104:H4.

E. coli is a bacterium commonly found in the intestines of warm-blooded animals.  Most strains of E. coli are harmless, even beneficial, contributing to the flora of the gut, but a few (such as serotype O157:H7) produce shiga toxin, which causes hemorrhagic diarrhea and kidney failure.  The current outbreak in Germany is being caused by shiga-toxin producing strain O104:H4 – a new strain that resists more than a dozen commonly used antibiotics, making illnesses caused by it extremely difficult to treat. In the span of a month, it sickened over 3,000 people and killed 36.  European public health officials, desperately seeking the immediate source of the bacteria, first incorrectly guessed it was cucumbers and other raw vegetables imported from Spain; now they are fairly confident it was sprouts from an organic farm in northern Germany. How E. coli O104:H4 got into the sprouts in the first place has not yet been determined.  But outbreaks of shiga-toxin producing E. coli (STECs for short), which have been in existence for less than thirty years, almost always have their ultimate origin in cattle.

A recent article in Bloomberg News quotes Australian veterinary public health researcher Rowland Cobbold as saying that “Cattle are the main reservoir for E. coli, the family of bowel-dwelling bacteria from which the new bug comes…The cucumber [or other raw vegetable] may be the lead back to the original ruminant that was the source…It’s almost entirely likely that it came from cattle at some point.” From the article:

 

Outbreaks of bloody diarrhea caused by E. coli have usually been linked to contaminated meat, Cobbold said. In more recent outbreaks where fruit and vegetables were implicated, E. coli- contaminated manure or irrigation water were found to be the original source, he said.

“If this goes the same way as previous investigations, they’ll find the ‘smoking gun’ — the ‘smoking tomato’ or the ‘smoking cucumber’,” Cobbold said. “They will then follow the production source back to the farm and they’ll work out the various contamination roots.” Most likely that will lead to the “smoking cow,” or at least a specific herd where the strain can be found, he said.

 

Intestines, or fecal matter from the hide of a cow in a slaughterhouse, can mix with meat going into ground beef. E. coli in manure can also spread into nearby fields and water sources and thereby get into vegetables.  As a consequence of the latest outbreak, many are now calling for irradiation of our entire food supply (essentially, pasteurization of cucumbers and lettuce), another solution which would enable food producers to skip quality assurance, and which is likely to give rise to new types of health crises, just as the current system of industrial agriculture has done.

The capacity for pathogenic bacteria to spread continent-wide from a single farm or animal is one of the flaws of our global food system.  But the real issue is what gives rise to a bacterium like E. coli 0104:H4 in the first place: over-usage of antibiotics, the very issue which the FDA, despite its stated mission to protect our health, is hesitating to address. While it’s frightening that similar outbreaks in the future are almost inevitable, it’s deeply ironic that the FDA is busy attacking the very type of farm that, by raising healthy cows in a natural, small, easily monitored environment, and selling its products directly to its local customers, is designed to prevent such global catastrophes

We are not in any danger from farms like Dan Allgyer’s. But we have reason to fear that factory farming, with its unhealthy cows full of antibiotics, will lead to new strains of E.coli that have to potential to repeatedly contaminate our global food system.  If the FDA were serious about limiting the spread of food borne pathogens, it would go to the source of the problem – the poor diet and unhygienic living conditions of the animals who are the initial victims of industrial, factory farmed agriculture.  At the same time, it would leave in peace those who are choosing to bypass the industrial food system for a local system that’s safer, healthier, and more accountable.