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Raw milk from Vandalia farm possibly linked to illness

Published 2:06pm Thursday, April 1, 2010

By AARON MUELLER
Cassopolis Vigilant

Controversy is again heating up surrounding the Family Farm Cooperative in Vandalia, which supplies raw milk to its members.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has now joined health departments in Michigan, Indiana and Illinois to warn consumers of an outbreak of campylobacter, an illness that has been linked with drinking unpasteurized milk distributed by the Family Farm Cooperative. The milk the cooperative distributes comes from Forest Grove Dairy in Middlebury, Ind.

James McCurtis of the Michigan Department of Community Health said there have been 12 confirmed cases of the illness in southeastern Michigan from those who have consumed milk from the cooperative. Twelve other cases are currently undergoing testing. Ages of those who have fallen ill are between 2 and 51 years old, but no one has been hospitalized.

Campylobacter is a bacterial contaminant that can be contained in raw milk but is eliminated through the pasteurization process, according to McCurtis.

“It’s similar to cooking meat,” he said. “It kills all the germs present in the milk.”

Symptoms of campylobacter include bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever, which can last one to two weeks. The illness is most often caused by the consumption of undercooked meat, according to McCurtis. The bacteria can also be spread through handling of animal feces or being in contact with pets that are infected.

McCurtis went on to say that drinking raw milk is just as dangerous as digging one’s teeth into a raw sirloin steak.

“I have no idea why people keep drinking raw milk,” he said.

Steve Bemis, an Ann Arbor attorney representing the Family Farm Cooperative, said there is no evidence of the raw milk causing the illness.

The first complaint of illness from one of the farm’s members came March 1, according to Bemis. Hebron temporarily shut down deliveries to investigate. Since then, Bemis says tests have been completed by the farm, showing no significant levels of campylobacter in the milk.

The Michigan Department of Community Health is currently collecting samples of the milk from those who have fallen ill to run tests. Results are not available yet.

Selling raw milk is currently illegal in Michigan, but the Family Farm Cooperative, owned by Richard Hebron, doesn’t directly sell the product.

“We have a cow share operation where customers buy a share in the herd, which gives them the legal right to obtain the milk from something they already own,” Hebron said.
Members of the cooperative pay a $25 annual fee and up to $8 a gallon in handling fees.
Cow share programs are not inspected or regulated under Michigan law.

This is not the first time controversy has surrounded the Family Farm Cooperative though. In October 2006, state police pulled Hebron over on a highway in Ann Arbor. According to an article in Time magazine, officers seized 453 gallons of the unpasteurized milk. Police also obtained a warrant to search his home and his computer was seized.

Hebron was allowed to return back to business a week after his milk was seized, when the state decided to allow him to provide the milk to those who buy herd shares.

The controversy was reignited  last week when the Michigan Department of Community Health issued a press release about the outbreak and a warning about the dangers of drinking unpasteurized milk.

So given the risks involved, why do people drink raw milk?

Bemis, who drinks raw milk and is a member of the cooperative, said there are numerous health benefits.

“Speaking personally, I believe it has virtually eliminated colds and flu over the last five years,” he said. “It has helped me with other medical issues, including keeping my weight down.”

He went on to say that people have different experiences when consuming the milk.
“In general, I feel that people ought to be free to choose what they want to eat,” Bemis said.

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