Farmers, Advocates Launch Raw Milk InstituteOctober 5th, 2011
Food Safety News
by Cookson Beecher
The much-anticipated Raw Milk Institute has gone live.
The brainchild of Mark McAfee, co-owner of Organic Pastures near Fresno, CA, the institute introduced its website — www.rawmilkinstitute.org — on Tuesday.
Simply put, the goal of the institute is to use science-based food-safety principles to shore up a strong foundation for the growing raw-milk movement.
Raw milk is milk that hasn’t been pasteurized to kill bacteria, some of which can make people sick or even kill them. These harmful organisms can be in milk from healthy animals as the result of contamination from fecal matter or unclean milking equipment.
“Raw milk isn’t going to go away even though the federal government would like it to,” said McAfee, who owns the largest raw-milk dairy in the nation.
He knows the strength of the raw-milk movement first hand. Demand for his dairy’s raw milk is so strong that he hasn’t been able to make any raw-milk butter or cheese — products that his customers often request. He thought he’d solve that problem by bringing 80 new cows into his herd, boosting the total number to 420, but demand keeps rising, so much so that he still doesn’t have enough milk to make butter or cheese.
A Holstein milk cow, the breed that McAfee has on his farm, typically produces from about 5 to 10 gallons each day, which means those 80 additional cows are giving McAfee a great deal more milk each day.
“I’d love to see another raw-milk producer in California,” he said. “There’s just not enough raw milk to meet demand.”
All across America, thousands of consumers are seeking out raw milk, in many cases because of perceived health benefits such as curing asthma or helping build strong immune systems. Others buy it because they remember drinking raw milk as a child and they see it as a good way to support local farmers. And just about all raw-milk drinkers say it tastes better than pasteurized milk.
Although precise data about how many people drink raw milk is not available, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that less than 1 percent of milk sold to consumers in the United States has not been pasteurized. But with the United States’s population at 311 million, according to 2011 figures, “less than 1 percent” hints of a large volume of raw milk being consumed.
The CDC warns against drinking raw milk from cows, goats, sheep or other ruminants, saying that there’s no evidence of any health benefits, and that the risk of being infected by a harmful or even deadly foodborne disease is too high, especially for infants and young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems.
Yet the demand for raw milk keeps going up.
McAfee said what surprised him the most about setting up the Raw Milk Institute is the conflict it triggered among raw-milk producers. Even though there are many farmers who support the ideas behind the institute because they believe it will help lower the risks associated with raw milk and therefore benefit consumers and the industry overall, there are others who don’t want anything to do with it.
“I thought — and I was wrong — that farmers would be interested in uniting around a common standard,” McAfee said. “But that’s not been the case. Some farmers won’t take food safety seriously, but they will always take their freedoms seriously.”
He sees that as a conflict within the raw-milk movement — one that’s “in conflict with itself.”
“We’ve got to work together and create safe food,” he said. “It’s usurping the cause if you’re only thinking about your freedom. Freedom and food safety are connected. I’m free as long as I produce safe milk.”
As a California dairyman, McAfee must meet strict state standards for his raw milk, which include the same very low bacterial counts as required for pasteurized milk — no more than 10 coliform bacteria per milliliter. (There are 946.4 milliliters in a quart of milk.) Eight other states — Arizona, Maine, New Hampshire, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Utah and Washington — have the same standard.
Outbreaks not a ‘fluke’
McAfee was quick to point out that any time there’s a foodborne disease outbreak linked to raw milk, there’s a reason.
“Outbreaks are not a fluke,” he said. “They’re a result of things not being done according to food-safety practices. Food safety is about the conditions you have anywhere that food moves through a system, whether it’s the pasture a cow grazes on or the pipes and hoses in the processing facility. You have to be diligent about this. It takes a lot of hard work and commitment to do it right.”
With that in mind, the institute will set nationally recognized standards for raw milk, accompanied by farmer training and mentoring. (The standards have not yet been agreed upon but will be posted on the site when they are.) It will be a voluntary program with no connection to government, although the hope is that legislators will “come to the table” as the institute proceeds. But they will in no way be connected with the operation of the institute, itself.
In addition to providing training and mentoring, the 501c3 non-profit institute, which is headquartered near Kerman, CA, will provide farmers with management tools to be used on a daily basis to improve raw-milk quality and safety.
When the institute is fully up and running, consumers will be able to access information about a raw-milk farmer’s food-safety plan and the farm’s raw-milk bacterial counts. They’ll also learn what those counts mean. Bottom line, low counts mean that the dairy is following good sanitary practices to keep the milk clean. High counts trigger concerns that there could be problems.
However, low counts don’t necessarily mean the milk is free of harmful or potentially deadly pathogens from fecal contamination such as E. coli, Salmonella or Campylobacter.
Michele Jay-Russell, program manager at the Western Center for Food Safety, University of California, Davis, told Food Safety News that while coliform counts are an important tool, low coliform counts don’t rule out the possible presence of pathogens such as E. coli and Salmonella. “It’s a ‘semi-crude’ predictor, not a ‘perfect predictor’,” she said, referring to coliform counts.
She also said that at this time, practical cost-effective interventions to protect raw milk from contamination are limited, and consumers should be very cautious or avoid purchasing these products — especially so when considering young children, who are at the greatest risk of serious complications from pathogens that are killed by heating the milk (pasteurization).
“Dairy products in the United States are among the safest foods on the market,” said Jay-Russell, “but the few outbreaks that occur each year are usually from consumption of raw milk.”
McAfee said the institute will benefit raw-milk producers and consumers alike, in large part through education. Farmers who become certified through the institute will be able to use the institute’s label on their milk. And as time goes by, he hopes consumers will come to know that the label signifies that food-safety practices are being followed and will seek out raw milk bearing the label.
As it is now, said McAfee, raw-milk consumers don’t really have a good way to judge a farmer’s practices.
“If they go to a farm and see some pretty roses planted near the house and a nice barn with a fresh coat of paint, they assume things are being done right,” he said. “Most consumers don’t have a clue about food-safety practices. We want them to be able to see their farmers from an expert’s perspective. They’ll be able to see the farmer’s score sheet (for cleanliness of the milk) and the farm’s food-safety plan. This will give them a high level of confidence about the raw milk they’re buying.”
From a raw-milk farmer’s perspective this is also a good step forward, said McAffee, pointing out that it allows the farmer to display his or her hard work and food-safety plan. “The world will see that and recognize the farmer’s hard work in producing safe raw milk,” he said.
Why the institute?
In traveling across the country speaking on behalf of raw milk and meeting raw milk producers, McAfee quickly became frustrated over what he describes as a “hodge podge of different realities” for raw milk. For example, 30 states allow the sale of raw milk for human consumption and 20 prohibit it, according to a survey conducted this year by the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.
Another fly in the ointment is that raw milk producers operating illegally or without state licenses often have very different standards. In some cases, said McAfee, there’s not much, or no, interest in basic food-safety practices.
Under federal law, raw-milk is illegal to transport across state borders.
“There’s a lot of variability in the safety of raw milk,” McAfee said. “There are no U.S. standards for raw milk for people to follow. We want to set standards (voluntary) for raw milk that will be consumed by people.”
As McAfee sees it, the institute’s standards will be aimed at producing milk with no harmful or potentially deadly foodborne pathogens such as E. coli, Salmonella or Campylobacter. But he also conceded that there’s no way to guarantee zero chance of pathogens being in the milk, just as there’s no guarantee of zero chance of pathogens in other fresh food we eat — raw spinach and cantaloupe, for example, both of which have been associated with recalls, illnesses, and deadly outbreaks.
“The risk will never be zero, but things can be managed in ways to significantly reduce the risk,” he said.
The institute will also be doing research on raw milk and teaching about it. And it will engage in “a limited amount” of legislative work pertaining to the passage of bills pertaining to raw milk.
“We are committed to working through the legislative process to ensure passage of laws that recognize and protect the production of raw milk,” says the website.
McAfee said producers who meet the standards will be able to get lower cost insurance as well as legal assistance. And they’ll also be involved in fundraising to keep the institute going forward toward its goals.
There’s no cost for producers to go through training and receive help in writing up a food safety plan. If after 6 months, their milk’s bacteria counts are acceptable, they’ll be able to be listed on the site. At some point, they’ll be asked to pay a nominal fee based on either the number of cows they have or the amount of milk they produce.
According to the institute’s website, the institute is funded through “generous donations, support of our members, and grants.” McAfee said the startup has cost $25,000, and plans are to seek grants from the National Institutes of Health and other sources. He also said that consumers have already put some money into the venture.
Who’s steering the ship?
McAfee, the founder and CEO of Organic Pastures and a pre-med-trained retired paramedic and Health Department medical educator, will serve as chairman of the board.
Other board “splash makers,” as they’re described on the site, are Bill Anderson, a raw-milk artisan and farmstead cheesemaker; Cat Berge, a practicing veterinarian who has done research at Organic Pastures; and Elaina Luther, a holistic health practitioner who heads “Culturing and Traditional Food Preparations” for Culture Club 101.
Among the institute’s executive advisory board members are Kristin Canty, filmmaker and director/producer of the documentary, “Farmageddon, The Unseen War on American Family Farms”; Sally Fallon, founder of A Campaign for Real Milk and founding president of the Weston A. Price Foundation; and Edwin Shank, organic farmer and raw-milk dairyman, owner of Shankstead EcoFarm and founder of The Family Cow, LLC.
McAfee emphasizes that even though the institute has a physical base complete with thousands of dollars worth of computers and signage, it’s still a work in progress. (The toll-free phone listed on the site won’t be activated until Oct. 3.)
But he said he can’t help but be excited about the interest shown on the part of the Oprah Winfrey Network in what he’s doing.
“It’s all preliminary right now,” he said, referring to the network’s interest. “But this could go ‘nuclear.’ ”
Reactions to RAWMI
Nancy Donley, president of STOP Foodborne Illness (formerly known as Safe Tables Our Priority), was quick to praise McAfee’s leadership in this.
“There’s finally someone deep within the (raw-milk) industry doing this and acknowledging, in a very public way, that there are hazards and risks associated with raw milk,” she told Food Safety News. “It’s unfortunate that that’s the part missed by so many unsuspecting consumers.”
But she also said she’s afraid that the efforts on the institute’s part will fall on too many deaf ears.
“Unfortunately, it won’t be adopted by all raw-milk farmers,” she said.
Her take on raw milk: “It’s inherently risky and shouldn’t be in commerce in any way, shape or form.”
Speaking for the National Milk Producers Federation, Chris Galen told Food Safety News in an e-mail that the timing of the institute’s launch is “ironic” since it comes during Food Safety Education Month.
He fears that the development of nationally recognized standards for raw milk may in fact “mislead and miseducate consumers of raw milk into believing it’s safe.”
He said the federation’s concerns include whether the average consumer knows enough to be able to interpret microbial counts or what he or she should be looking for in a farm’s food- safety plan.
And would consumers know that potentially lethal pathogens could, and sometimes would, be present even with a low bacterial count and a food-safety plan?
Bottom line, an important question for the federation is whether raw milk can ever be safe enough for people drink with no fears of getting food poisoned from pathogens.
“The answer is still no,” he said.
Food-safety attorney Bill Marler (publisher of Food Safety News) said he thinks any step at making a food product safer is a good first step.
But he has doubts about some of the people at the institute’s helm.
“Some of the members of the board and advisors are the same people who have denied the reality of raw-milk outbreaks or believe that raw milk is ‘magical’ and kills pathogens,” he said. “Until the leaders of this movement start with a firm grasp of reality, raw milk safety is just that — ‘magical.’ ”
He refers consumers interested in raw milk to Real Raw Milk Facts, which contains information compiled by scientists about the key health and safety issues associated with drinking raw milk.
Nampa, Idaho raw milk producer Sara Sweet, who with her husband Joe, founded and runs Pure Food Co-op, an organization with about 30 customers who get products such raw milk, fresh produce, beef and roasting chickens from farms in the co-op, sees a definite need for something like the Raw Milk Institute.
She told Food Safety News that when she contemplated getting into the production of raw milk she did a lot of research on how to do it safely.
“That was really important to us,” she said. “We wanted to know what makes raw milk dangerous and what makes it safe.”
She quickly discovered that people were either “so hot or so cold” about raw milk.
“I wanted to know ‘where is the reality,’ ” she said.
Her research led her to conclude that raw milk “isn’t the devil, nor is it the savior of all mankind.”
In her opinion, “It does improve health. And it’s an almost perfect food. But it’s not completely safe.”
Because of this, the co-op’s customers sign a disclaimer that they understand the risks involved with drinking raw milk.
“I want them to know the possible dangers,” she said.
Farmers who supply raw milk to the co-op’s customers must agree to follow specific food-safety practices, ranging from the type of flooring in the milking parlor to the way the animals’ teats are cleaned. All of this is disclosed, as well as information about each farm, on the co-op’s website.
“People ought to have information like that,” she said.
She is pleased that McAfee has started the Raw Milk Institute. She said she thinks it’s good for consumers and she definitely likes the format.
“It’s voluntary — not a big government plan,” she said. “It’s farmers helping other farmers. Any education of producers and consumers is great.”
She has found that some raw-milk producers don’t know much, if anything, about food- safety practices. Not only that, some don’t want to make the necessary changes. At the same time, many consumers think that if they’re buying raw milk, it must be safe or the state wouldn’t allow it.
In monitoring the results from Idaho’s milk-quality tests on all raw-milk producers in the past few months, Sweet said that in results from seven tests on Grade A raw-milk dairies, there were 2 failing tests and 5 passing tests. On small-herd permit holders, 46 tests were conducted, with 33 passing grades and 13 failing grades.
“So I think there is room for education and consumer awareness,” she said. “People definitely need help keeping things safe. I think everyone wants healthy, safe milk.”
She has her own concerns about large conventional milk producers. “I feel bad that they’re getting so little for their milk when we’re selling ours for $8 per gallon,” she said.
Tim Lukens, co-owner of Grace Harbor Farms in Washington state, which produced and distributed raw milk for about a year until two children became ill after drinking some of it, said that although raw milk is “near and dear to his heart,” he would never be involved with it commercially again.
At the time, he had been licensed by the state and was following all of the state’s requirements for licensing, which includes regular testing and inspections. In the dairy industry, the farm enjoyed a reputation for being “as neat and clean as a pin.”
“From an observer’s standpoint, I would say that the raw-milk industry isn’t going to go away, even thought the regulators would like it to,” he told Food Safety News. “And while I can understand the basic premise of the effort ( of the Raw Milk Institute), do I think it will stop illnesses from raw milk?”
He answers that question with an emphatic “No.”
He pointed to three things that can happen when some someone becomes sick from pathogens in raw milk. They can get extremely sick, they can be hospitalized for severe kidney problems and suffer lifetime health problems, or they can die. “That’s enough to convince me that it’s not worth it,” he said.
Yet, after the outbreak connected to his farm’s milk, he was surprised that people still wanted him and his wife Grace to keep selling them raw milk. “We narrowly escaped a child dying or being very sick over a lifetime,” he said.
Calling McAfee’s successful raw-milk business a “cash cow,” Lukens said he understands his interest in protecting his livelihood, which could be threatened by raw-milk outbreaks caused by other dairies.
And while he wishes the people involved with the Raw Milk Institute well, he said that raw milk is “ultimately a case of consumer beware.”
“We can’t outlaw everything,” he said. “But we do have to encourage responsible decisions.”