by Dan Flynn
Jul 15, 2011
The raw milk that sickened 16 children and two adults at a Wisconsin elementary school last month came from a bulk tank at a local farm that sells milk from its 230 dairy cows to a licensed dairy plant for pasteurization and processing.
Ever since the June 1 "Wisconsin Dairy Days" event left so many of its young participants with Campylobacter infection, interest has swirled around whether the untreated milk came from a regular dairy farm or a raw milk dairy.
A copy of the investigative file from Wisconsin's Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Projection (DATCP), requested by Food Safety News, indicates the raw milk came from a regular dairy farm selling milk for pasteurization and also supplying raw milk to family members and employees.
It may actually be an example of the sort of conventional dairy identified last year by author David Gumpert, who said some farms operate dual systems, one supplying milk for pasteurization and the other for raw milk. (Gumpert wrote "The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America's Emerging Battle Over Food Rights" in 2009.)
A year ago last May, in the online publication Grist, Gumpert reported on the dispute within the Organic Valley cooperative over its board's decision to prohibit members from selling raw milk, which an estimated 10 percent were doing.
In the Wisconsin elementary-school outbreak, the DATCP's Jill Ball wrote in the investigation closure summary that, "The source farm had not engaged in sale or distribution of untreated milk outside of family and employees."
"The milk produced at the source farm is sold to a licensed dairy plant for pasteurization and processing," she added. "There was no retail sale of untreated milk by the parent (who) brought the untreated milk to the North Cape school dairy days function."
Sales of raw milk are illegal in Wisconsin.
DATCP was brought into the Campylobacter outbreak investigation on June 9, and by the next day the investigative notes said: "So far there is a strong EPI link to untreated milk."
The investigators also determined that parents had brought the raw milk to school from "a relative's farm tank and (it) was not treated/pasteurized."
Ball said one parent "went to a family member's farm and collected the untreated milk from the bulk tank herself." The milk producer reportedly holds a Grade A permit and was on schedule for annual inspections.
The name of the dairy farm is not being disclosed by Wisconsin ag or health officials.
"As the farm did nothing wrong, we are not releasing information about the farm," said Cheryl Mazmanian, the director and health officer for the Western Racine County Health Department.
Steven C. Ingham, the administrator and public records custodian for DATCP's Division of Food Safety -- in a letter to Food Safety News -- said that the department "believes the public may be seriously misled as to the public health issues involved with this incident, by focusing on the individual farm operation, instead of on the grave health risks that may be associated with the general distribution of raw milk to the public."
Food Safety News has 60 days to file in a Wisconsin court for "review by mandamus" to force disclosure of the farm. It would have to persuade a judge that the public's right to know overweighs the farm operator's privacy. The name of the farm is, of course, also required if there is to be any oversight of DATCP's role as a regulator.
DATCP's investigative file is sketchy at best. It provides no information on the relative who removed the raw milk from the "bulk tank." There also are no details on when the milk was taken, how much was removed, and whether it is routine for relatives to remove product without notice or supervision.
The raw milk was served to 29 fourth graders and their 17 guests at North Cape Elementary School in Union Grove, Racine County, on June 1. Multiple students were absent the following Monday, June 6, and were said to have fever, diarrhea, vomiting, and bloody stools.
Ten of those infected were treated at local emergency rooms or by family doctors, and one was admitted to a hospital.