Back in the fall of 2006, the California Department of Food and Agriculture shut down Organic Pastures Dairy Co. after the state identified six children it said were sickened by E.coli O157:H7. Inspectors invaded the dairy and carried out hundreds of manure and environmental tests. The dairy was only allowed to resume production some two weeks later, after its owner, Mark McAfee, called a press conference to protest that the CDFA was dragging its heels in lifting its quarantine–he threatened legal action and consumer protests.
Five years later, and the story has unfolded in amazingly similar fashion. The CDFA shuttered Organic Pastures four weeks ago, after California health authorities connected the dairy with five illnesses from E.coli O157:H7 scattered around the state. Extensive testing of manure samples and the OPDC facilities was carried out.
OPDC says it went about the last four weeks upgrading its dairy facilities and correcting problems identified by the state. When, in recent days, it says it passed the state’s inspection with flying colors, and its private testing of products showed no evidence of pathogen contamination, the state still hadn’t allowed the dairy to re-open.
By early today, having experienced an estimated $500,000 in lost sales, McAfee says, he had had enough. He filed a court action contesting the shutdown, and had called a press conference for this afternoon, at which he planned to urge his army of 60,000 raw milk drinkers to bombard the offices of their legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown with calls and emails.
By this afternoon, the CDFA issued a press release in which it announced that the quarantine of OPDC had been lifted, except for distribution of colostrum, which the state says it continues to test.
The debate over what actually might have gone wrong at OPDC in 2006 has continued intermittently for the last five years. McAfee has argued that no pathogens were ever found at his dairy linking it with the 2006 illnesses, but there was an out-of-court financial settlement with two families whose children were most seriously sickened. There were subsequent findings of non-matching E.coli O157:H7 in cattle manure and of campylobacter in the dairy’s cream.
This time around, OPDC said E.coli O157:H7 was discovered in the manure of two calves, which were kept separate from the milking cows. There were also reports earlier on in the testing process of a listeria finding in a dairy product.
Yet McAfee is already taking issue with the CDFA’s version of today’s events, as expressed in its press release. The CDFA stated in part: “During the quarantine, the (OPDC) facility was prohibited from producing raw milk products for the retail market. The order affected milk as well as raw butter, raw cream, raw colostrum, and a raw product labeled ‘Qephor.’ At this time, the quarantine hold on raw colostrum remains because it is the subject of continuing investigation by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA).“
McAfee didn’t appreciate the CDFA press release. “It is filled with ugly lies,” he said. “None of the kids drank colostrum, yet they mislead the reader to think that we have some pathogen in our colostrum. The bug they found is a new potential pathogen. It is not ecoli O157:H7. It is a non regulatory bug. They told us this a week ago. The kids drank raw milk and had ecoli O157:H7. Classic smoke screen.They cannot find the smoking gun pathogen….so create one that does not exist as a distraction from the truth.”
Whatever the disagreement over verbiage, Organic Pastures has opened its own doors for raw dairy sales, and has begun shipping to its retailers around the state. Customers on the dairy’s Facebook page, who have been bemoaning their loss of raw milk for the last four weeks, seem thrilled.
But don’t be surprised if the fog of a raw milk war doesn’t lift all that quickly, and the varying stories from the shutdown of 2011 continue for years to come.