The Raw Deal
Unpasteurized milk is fresher and tastes better. It might even do your body good – if it doesn’t make you sick.
Thursday, September 6, 2012
I stuck my head out the back door and took a desperate gulp of fresh bay air. Holding my breath, I knelt back down on the newspaper spread on my kitchen floor and willed myself not to retch. With latex-gloved hands and a tiny spork, I ladled the foul contents of my son’s dirty diapers into two vials, mixing fecal matter into a red preservative liquid.
This was my assignment from the Monterey County Health Department: Collect samples of my baby’s stool to test for food poisoning. It was early April, and I’d later piece together the timeline that led me to that pathetic moment.
On March 14, the California Department of Food and Agriculture took its monthly sample of raw cream at Claravale Farm for routine pathogen testing. Three days later I bought two quarts of Claravale milk from a Monterey produce market and gave my 15-month-old a bottle of it. And on March 19, a preliminary CDFA lab test showed the presence of campylobacter, a common foodborne bacteria. Claravale voluntarily halted distribution.
That same Monday my baby got sick. Really sick. Normally a cheery little guy, he whimpered constantly. He couldn’t sleep and moaned all night, holding his stomach and grimacing. He had diarrhea so acidic it burned a rash into his bum; the constant diaper changes were torture. He wouldn’t eat and would barely drink. I nursed him as much as I could, but we also offered raw Claravale cow and goat’s milk. I’d never seen him so miserable, not even with croup, a “barking” cough. The pediatrician told us to give it a couple of days, hydrate him, and bring him in if he didn’t get better.
On Thursday we took him to the doctor, who recommended Vaseline for his sore bum and more liquids, but no dairy. I hate to admit this: We only cut back on the bottles. Raw milk and a little water were the only drinks he’d accept, other than the breast. He stayed sick.
Friday, March 23, the CDFA confirmed the campylobacter contamination and issued a quarantine. But I didn’t catch wind of it until the following Tuesday – 10 days after I’d bought the milk – when a press release from the County Health Department instructed consumers and retailers to dispose of any Claravale products with a March 27 expiration date: the same batch I’d bought. I called my husband and told him to stop giving our son the milk, stat. Then I contacted our pediatrician and the health department.
Since the doctor didn’t order a stool sample, county staff agreed to do it. Thus the dirty diapers and the vials.
County epidemiologist Kristy Michie warned me about misleading results. A negative wouldn’t guarantee he hadn’t been exposed, she said, because the body can shed the bacteria within days. A positive wouldn’t prove how he’d gotten it.
Several days later, she called back: Both samples were positive. My baby’s poo was now headed to state labs for more detailed testing.
In early June, Michie called again. The DNA analysis of my kid’s campylobacter showed a match with the Claravale strain.
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Retail sale of raw milk is legal in 16 U.S. states, some of them with rather Orwellian restrictions, and it can’t be sold across state lines. California has some of the laxer regulations but only two licensed commercial raw dairies.
The state Department of Food and Agriculture estimates 3 percent of Californians drink raw milk. Unpasteurized products tend to carry higher price tags, but many regular raw-milk consumers feel it’s healthier, fresher or tastier than the pasteurized stuff.
But there’s good reason Louis Pasteur is still a household name: Heating milk kills bacteria. And even if raw milk is safe most of the time, it poses a higher risk of foodborne illness. I’d just figured it wouldn’t hit my family.
Soon after my son turned 1, I started supplementing his breastmilk habit with dairy. A cursory Googling suggested raw cow’s milk has benefits beyond those of organic pasteurized milk, and our pediatrician backed that up.
At least once a week we’d trek to one particular Monterey produce market to pick up Claravale whole milk, if it wasn’t already sold out. It was hard to find and expensive, but my toddler, who’d been rejecting non-mommy milk, sucked it down with relish.
Monterey-based Dr. Douglas Hulstedt may be the area’s only pediatrician who recommends raw milk (after breastmilk, of course) – and he’s my kid’s doctor. He says it contains enzymes, unadulterated proteins and probiotics lacking in pasteurized dairy. The non-homogenized state allows fat globules to deliver nutrients into the body more efficiently, he says. Most kids allergic to pasteurized homogenized milk, he adds, can drink the raw cream-top kind; it may even help prevent asthma.
That’s a bold position for a doctor to take. “I’ve gotten huge flak for it in the medical community,” he says in an interview. But he’s sticking to it, noting that all unprocessed foods pose some risk. “If you’re going to get food that’s closer to the source, it’s going to be more bio-available to everything,” he says, “including bacteria and fungi.”
Hulstedt’s wife, Gloria Chavez, owns the Health & Water Store in Pacific Grove, where she sells glass bottles of Claravale milk. “It still is live; it has enzymes,” she says. “It seems to help with skin. It seems to help with strength.”
Her store’s Claravale deliveries are limited to about 100 bottles a week, but she says the product has a loyal following. “Right now we feel like it’s the gift from God. It’s not a big money-maker; it’s more of a service. It’s a gift of love.”
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Interim County Health Officer Lisa Hernandez says the county takes the same stance on raw milk as its state and federal counterparts: “Raw milk is not safe. There’s no health benefit with raw milk you can’t get from pasteurized milk.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration published an info sheet smacking down claims about raw milk – referencing scientific findings that it doesn’t cure lactose intolerance, alleviate asthma or allergies, contain probiotic bacteria to improve gastrointestinal health or build kids’ immune systems.
Hernandez says raw milk is particularly dangerous for pregnant woman, children, the elderly and other people with compromised immune systems. Pasteurization kills the bacteria, like campylobacter and E. coli, that can contaminate milk if they come into contact with manure, infected udders or milkers’ dirty hands.
My kid’s was one of only two confirmed cases of Claravale-sourced campylobacteriosis in Monterey County – which seemed surprisingly low, considering four of the 10 stores selling the recalled batch were in-county. (The others were in Hollister, Santa Cruz, Soquel and Fresno, though Claravale distributes from Santa Rosa to San Diego.)
By May, the California Department of Public Health had confirmed five cases of the Claravale campylobacter strain statewide. At least 15 more people reported drinking Claravale raw milk before contracting campylobacteriosis, but they didn’t get the lab work down to the strain, according to department spokesman Matt Conens. In May, two months after the Claravale recall, the state also recalled campylobacter-tainted milk from Organic Pastures. (Sept. 6 UPDATE: Yesterday, the state recalled another batch of Organic Pastures milk for campylobacter contamination.)
Besides “campy,” as medical geeks call it, another half-dozen pathogenic bacteria can lurk in raw milk. Most of the resulting illnesses are limited to diarrhea and stomachaches. But government health agencies like to play up the rare worst-case scenarios: acute renal failures from E. coli infection, miscarriages from listeriosis, hospitalizations from salmonella poisoning. An estimated 1 in 1,000 cases of campylobacteriosis leads to paralyzing Guillain-Barré syndrome.
The CDFA has ordered six recalls of raw-milk products since fall 2006, according to department spokesman Steve Lyle. Aside from the Claravale recall, the other five were for products from California’s biggest raw dairy, Organic Pastures. In 2006 and 2011, the Fresno-area farm was linked with E. coli infections that hospitalized at least six children.
Seattle-based food-safety lawyer Bill Marler represented two kids with acute kidney failure in that 2006 E. coli case. He says he settled with Organic Pastures and the grocery stores that sold it.
Retailers take a liability risk when they sell raw milk, Marler says, especially if they don’t have signage warning of the risks. He cites a news-making case in which he represented two victims of tainted raw milk bought at a Whole Foods store in Connecticut.
In early 2010, Whole Foods pulled raw milk from their shelves in four states, including California. “They made a calculated decision that the risk of selling raw milk wasn’t worth it,” he says.
But he thinks he knows why some people drink it. “It’s people who are generally higher education,” he says. “They’re moving away from processed foods; they’re moving away from organics because even that can’t be trusted. They move further and further to the edge.
“People who advocate for raw milk have all these ideas of what it can do for yourself and your child: It can cure your allergies, your asthma, your autism. As humans, you tend to accentuate the positive and ignore the possibility of a real risk.”
He says it’s telling that Ron Paul, the recent Republican presidential candidate with a libertarian fan base, is for raw-milk legalization: “The far left and the far right come together with raw milk.”
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Claravale Farm is a sweet patch of pastureland in the bucolic Panoche Valley south of Hollister.
Several years ago, before I started buying Claravale milk, I met the farm’s co-owner, Ron Garthwaite, and admired the calm, long-lashed Jerseys being milked in a small open-air barn. It was an uplifting counterpoint to the nightmarish factory feedlots I’d seen.
Garthwaite interprets his raw-milk customers a little differently than Marler: “The people who are nostalgic, the foodies, the people into alternative health. They’re looking for fresh, unprocessed, natural foods.”
He says his wife is a believer in raw milk’s health benefits, but his passion is for the pleasure of it. “I drink a lot of milk, but not because it’s healthy,” he says. “Because I like it.”
His 50-60 cattle are all Jerseys, which produce the highest butterfat content of major dairy breeds. “Holsteins are a scam,” he says. “You think our milk is pricey, but there can be over a third more stuff in it.”
He holds even more contempt for pasteurized, homogenized milk, which he says is as close to his “real” product as canned tomatoes are to vine-ripened heirlooms. “It’s not milk,” he says. “It’s canned dairy beverage.”
Garthwaite says his milk usually sells out, and demand seems to be growing. “We have more orders than we could possibly fill,” he says. “We could quadruple our herd, and we could sell it all.”
But people who buy raw still make up such a tiny sliver of the dairy market that he doubts its future. Unless he lines up someone to take over the farm, he says, he’ll shut it down when he retires. “I think there will be a time when there is no more raw milk, and nobody will remember what it was.”
And he doesn’t want to talk to one more reporter about raw milk’s food-safety issues, which he feels the mainstream dairy industry has spun to a hysterical pitch. “It has been done to death,” he says. “People don’t do it when it’s about spinach or cantaloupes or anything else. The types of foodborne illnesses you can get in dairy products are exactly the same foodborne illnesses you can get from any other kind of unprocessed foods.”
The March recall has prompted one legal threat against Claravale, Garthwaite says, but he hopes liability insurance will protect the farm’s finances.
And he notes the government warning on Claravale bottles: “Raw (unpasteurized) milk and raw milk dairy products may contain disease-causing microorganisms. Persons at highest risk of disease from these organisms include newborns and infants; the elderly; pregnant women… and those having chronic illnesses or other conditions that weaken their immunity.”
“That label on the side of our bottle says yes, it’s a risky food,” Garthwaite says. “People should read that label and make a decision.”
But that risk, at least in Claravale’s case, is very small. Garthwaite says before the March 2012 recall, the dairy has never had a contaminated batch dating back to its 1927 founding. CDFA spokesman Lyle doesn’t have any records that prove him wrong. And Hulstedt says in his whole medical career he’s never seen a patient made ill from raw milk until my son.
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I’m back at the Monterey produce market on a hot August afternoon, loitering near the refrigerated section. There are no signs, other than the bottles themselves, warning the Claravale products are not pasteurized.
The glass jars are sweating a little. I recall what Garthwaite said about the quality of his Jersey cow milk: the realness of it, the foodie goodness of unadulterated cream. After a four-month raw-milk hiatus (we’ve switched to pasteurized, organic milk for the kid), I’m craving it. Just one cold bottle of whole.
At the register – it’s $4.99 plus tax and a $1.50 bottle deposit – the clerk tells me more and more people are coming in specifically for it. I ask if she drinks it herself. “I try once,” she says with an apologetic smile. “It bad my stomach.”
Once home, I tentatively pour myself a glass. Garthwaite is right: It’s not like typical milk. Chunks of cold, melty cream and a round but subtle flavor, a freshness that makes me think of a clear river. A dessert to pair with fresh peaches at the height of summer.
So I’ll raise this glass, for now, to the deliciousness and precariousness of raw things. Maybe this can be a rare treat for the grownups of our household. I’m not about to give up the occasional indulgence in sushi or fresh oysters; this isn’t much different. Besides, there are health risks in eating only processed foods, too.
My kid, on the other hand, won’t be tasting this gourmet goodness again till he’s old enough to drive. If he asks why, I’ll explain the controversy: “Some people say raw milk is better for you, but others say it’s not safe for kids. Once it made you pretty sick.”