Digest – Blogs: Lawyer eyes raw milk wars, reporter eyes pasteurized milk outbreak

starMarler for the cause: We've been enjoying the blog of personal-injury lawyer Bill Marler, aka the E. Coli Avenger, right up until when he started talking about raw milk as if it were a weak antelope falling behind the rest of the herd. (By the way, Mr. Marler, downloading and posting the Ethicurean's photo of Organic Pastures raw milk without attribution is in violation of our Creative Commons license. Tsk, tsk.) First he suggests that the lawsuit might have to do with how raw milk sells for $6 per gallon more than pasteurized milk. Hmm. Could it be that it costs so much more because raw-milk dairies (in California at least) raise their animals on pasture, without milk-stimulating growth hormones, and have to bend over backwards to ensure hygienic facilities, unlike those who can just nuke their milk and kill everything in it? Having posted a few days ago on illness outbreaks in pasteurized milk, Marler should know that risk exists regardless. 

Let's ban pasteurized milk: Reporter/blogger David Gumpert looks at the difference in the state's response to the listeria found in the pasteurized milk of Whittier Farms, a small high-quality operation in Massachusetts, that killed two men and caused a miscarriage, compared to its swift handling of any raw-milk suspects. (The Complete Patient)

Defending organic's integrity: Elaine's list of the top organic stories, events and trends of 2007 is a smart one, with a some sage words of advice. Under No. 7: "a war of words about what organic is supposed to mean has been centered on dairy, but it's gone far beyond that too, leaving too many people thinking that organic doesn't mean anything. The organic community must elevate its dialogue about this issue above its destructive tone." (Organic Confidential)

A two-prawned strategy: What it means that Oregon's pink shrimp fishery has been certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. (WorldChanging)

Once there were parking lots…: Great photos of how farmland could be integrated into blighted urban settings, from the "Urban Voids: Grounds for Change" competition in 2006. (TreeHugger)

9 Responsesto “Digest – Blogs: Lawyer eyes raw milk wars, reporter eyes pasteurized milk outbreak”

  1. Bill Marler says:

    Good morning - Hmmm, sorry about the photo - I actually found it on the website of a newspaper along with the Youtube of the Organic Pastures owner. It had no attribution at all. Happy to take it down. As for raw milk - I don't eat, nor let my kids eat, hamburger, sprouts, raw oysters or raw milk. We try to buy organic and locally as much as Seattle weather allows. Choice - sound familiar?

    As for milk, raw or mis-pasteurized, it is a product like spinach from Dole, hamburgers from Cargill, etc. Drink it by the truckload. However, if it poisons a kid, I will track you down. Farmers gotta farm and lawyers gotta sue. Now back to my coffee.

  2. Bill Marler says:

    Sorry, 1 more thing - If you think I am just after Raw Milk, please read my post on mis-pasteurized milk:


    I do not discriminate.

  3. Bonnie P. says:

    Mr. Bill - You didn't have to take down the photo, just attribute it. (I wasn't picking on you that hard; we too "borrow" pictures from the Web all the time unsure of their provenance.)

    Your kids don't eat hamburger? Even from grassfed Seattle-area cows? What a bummer for them.

    And yes, it's about choice, both personal and parental. I'd prefer the occasional lawsuit for negligence, I guess, than that all food be pasteurized and/or irradiated.

  4. Bill Marler says:

    Bonnie - no worries - hamburger is hamburger, grass fed or not. E. coli O157:H7 can be in grass fed cows - the source of the September 2006 E. coli outbreak from spinach was organic, grass fed cows. There is some evidence that cows fed grain in a feedlot environment may harbor more of the nasty bugs - I've blogged about that too.

  5. Bill,
    All hamburger is not the same. Industrial ground meat is made from hundreds of animals from many sources (often from many countries) and is far different from freshly ground meat from a single animal. In the multi-animal meat, just one E. coli-laden carcass can spread the pathogens throughout the entire sample.
    The statement about grass-fed cattle being the source of the Sept 2006 outbreak is somewhat incorrect: grass-fed cattle were only one of many potential sources of the E. coli. The official report (which can be found here) said the following:
    From page 3 of the report (my emphasis):

    E. coli O157:H7 was found in environmental samples collected near each of the four fields that provided spinach for the P227A product code. However, E. coli O157:H7 isolates associated with only one of the four fields (located on the Paicines Ranch in San Benito County) had a PFGE [pulsed field gel electrophoresis] pattern indistinguishable from the outbreak strain. The PFGE pattern was identified in river water, cattle feces, and wild pig feces on the Paicines Ranch, the closest of which was just under one mile from the spinach field. Land on the ranch was primarily utilized for cattle grazing by the large Pacinines Ranch grass-fed beef operation. A relatively small amount of land on this ranch was leased for ready-to-eat crop production by Mission Organics. The ready-to-eat crop produce from this leased acreage was sold as conventional produce but organic growing practices were used, as the leased acreage was in the three year transition phase required for organic certification. Investigators observed evidence of wild pigs in and around the cattle pastures as well as in the row crop growing regions of the ranch. Investigators established that numerous wild pigs thrived alongside grazing cattle in the riparian habitat of the Paicines Ranch. Potential environmental risk factors for E. coli O157:H7 contamination during this investigation included the presence of wild pigs in and around spinach fields and the proximity of irrigation wells used for ready-to-eat produce to surface waterways exposed to feces from cattle and wildlife. In the Paicines Ranch area, documented groundwater levels were higher in elevation than the San Benito riverbed on the ranch during March, 2006, fell to the riverbed level in July, 2006, and subsequently fell below the riverbed level later in the growing season. This potentially allowed surface river water from the river flowing into Paicines Ranch valley to percolate into the ground again and recharge the groundwater basin during that period. Further assessments are needed to determine the likelihood of this occurrence. No definitive determination could be made regarding how E. coli O157:H7 pathogens contaminated spinach in this outbreak.

  6. Bill Marler says:

    Mark - I'm not a fan of industrialized agriculture, but I also do not blindly believe in false ideas - the bottom line is the grass fed cows can and do produce E. coli O157:H7 and have been tied to outbreaks of illness - a smaller, but still a list that causes me concern. Is it a better idea to feed cows grass than grain or ground-up animal parts? You bet. But, feeding them grass will not eliminate E. coli O157:H7. The report you cite above only tells part of the story - the litigation that I am involved in with Dole, NSF and MO (I represent several families of people who died and children who suffered acute kidney failure) has clearly shown that the organically raised cattle were the source of the outbreak - how the bug got from the cows to the organically grown spinach (field was in transition) is a question that we are still working on.

  7. Doug Powell says:

    Cows poop E. coli O157:H7 -- regardless of diet

    Chef and restaurateur Lenny Russo joins other food pornographers such as Mark Bittman and Nina Planck in promoting fashion over facts by recycling the claim that grass-fed cattle have significantly lower levels of dangerous E. coli than grain-fed cattle.

    Mike Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota and Russo's target, does a nice job of, um, crushing Russo's assertions in today's Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune:

    "Russo cited conclusions from a 1998 study from Cornell University that cattle fed a diet of grass, not grain, had very few E. coli, and that those bacteria that survived in the cattle feces would not survive in the human when eaten in undercooked meat, particularly hamburger. This statement is based on a study of only three cows rotated on different diets and for which the researchers did not even test for E. coli O157:H7. Unfortunately, the authors extrapolated these incredibly sparse results to the entire cattle industry. The Cornell study is uncorroborated in numerous published scientific papers from renowned research groups around the world. Finally, work conducted by the Minnesota Department of Health as part of a national study on foodborne disease recently showed that eating red meat from local farms was a significant risk factor for E. coli infection. ...

    "Russo would understand this issue in an entirely different light if he had been with me when I had to explain to distraught parents that their young daughter's death was due to eating an undercooked hamburger, prepared by them, and the E. coli that caused her illness came from meat from a cow raised only on pasture grass and processed by the local meat packer. The cow also came from Grandpa's farm down the road."

    Lawyer Bill Marler offered his own take on the exchange, so I'll jump in to reiterate that the natural reservoirs for E. coli O157:H7 and other verotoxigenic E. coli is the intestines of all ruminants, including cattle -- grass or grain-fed -- sheep, goats, deer and the like. The final report of the fall 2006 spinach outbreak identifies nearby grass-fed beef cattle as the likely source of the E. coli O157:H7 that sickened 200 and killed 4.

    As my colleague David Renter wrote in Sept. 2006,

    "Cattle raised on diets of 'grass, hay and other fibrous forage' do contain E. coli O157:H7 bacteria in their feces as do other animals including deer, sheep, goats, bison, opossum, raccoons, birds, and many others.

    "Cattle diet can affect levels of E. coli O157:H7, but this is a complex issue that has been and continues to be studied by many scientists. To suggest switching cattle from grain to forage based on a small piece of the scientific evidence is inappropriate and irresponsible. Several pieces of evidence suggest that such a change would not eliminate and may even increase E. coli O157:H7 in cattle.

    "The current spinach outbreak may be traced back to cattle manure, but there are many other potential sources. Simplistically attacking one facet of livestock production may be politically expedient, but instead provides a false sense of security and ignores the biological realities of E. coli O157:H7. In 1999, for example, 90 children were felled by E. coli O157:H7 at a fair in London, Ont. The source? A goat at a petting zoo, hardly an intensively farmed animal."

    Images courtesy of the IFSN video Poop in the Field, available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IL8iXUbTqgI

  8. Bonnie P. says:

    Hi Doug: Yes, I read that post of yours on your BarfBlog, so you didn't actually need to regurgitate it here in its entirety. A link would have sufficed. I'm not sure why you're calling Russo a "food pornographer" (or for that matter Nina Planck — and Mark Bittman?) when all he's saying is in agreement with the undersecretary of the USDA, that perhaps we should look at feedlot conditions before irradiating the entire meat supply. But let's go through this point by point, because I'm surprised to find that Osterholm's Star-Tribune account of the Cornell/USDA joint study, and the subsequent reaction of the scientific community to it, seems to me at best misleading and at worst substantively incorrect.

    Even a cursory review of the study in question, "Grain Feeding and the Dissemination of Acid-Resistant Escherichia coli from Cattle," by Francisco Diez-Gonzalez, Todd R. Callaway, Menas G. Kizoulis, James B. Russell, (Science 11 September 1998: Vol. 281. no. 5383, pp. 1666 - 1668; link) shows that the primary research was conducted on not 3, but 61 animals. Here is an interesting chart from the Diez-Gonzales et al. report:

    Follow-up research was conducted on three animals at a time, yes, but other studies have corroborated its general findings. And while you are correct that this study did not specifically measure E. coli O157:H7 versus general E. coli population, perhaps you missed "Forage Feeding to Reduce Preharvest Escherichia coli Populations in Cattle, a Review," published in the Journal of Dairy Science in 2003 by T. R. Callaway, R. O. Elder, J. E. Keen, R. C. Anderson, and D. J. Nisbet, all researchers at either the USDA's Food and Feed Safety Research Unit in Texas or the Meat Animal Research Center in Nebraska. It notes: "Although no E. coli O157:H7 were specifically detected in [the 1998 Cornell] study, it was previously demonstrated that E. coli O157:H7 could grow in VFA concentrations and at pH similar to those found in the colon of these grain-fed cattle (Diez-Gonzalez and Russell, 1997). Based on these results the authors suggested that feedlot cattle be switched from high grain diets to hay for 5 d before slaughter to reduce E. coli contamination entering the abattoir (Diez-Gonzalez et al., 1998)."

    This particular literature review does note that other studies have failed to duplicate the connection between an abrupt shift in diet and the exact incidence of reduction in E. coli 0157:H7 prevalence, but ascribes these differences to differences in how the E. coli was cultured and subjected to the "acid shock" test meant to replicate the bacteria's ability to survive in the human stomach. Callaway, Edler et al. conclude with this:

    The United States has the safest food supply in the history of the world; however, food-borne pathogenic bacteria are still significant threats to human health. Sanitation steps following slaughter effectively reduce carcass contamination with E. coli O157:H7, but preharvest intervention strategies offer avenues to reduce pathogen populations in food animals before they enter the food chain. Attempts to modify fecal shedding of E. coli O157:H7 through fasting and feeding poor-quality forages have been shown to increase shedding in cattle. However, abruptly switching cattle from a high grain ration to a high-quality hay-based diet has been shown to reduce generic E. coli and E. coli O157:H7 populations, but the magnitude of reduction has varied among studies. Switching all feedlot cattle in the United States from grain-based diets to hay prior to slaughter is not currently feasible, in spite of the potential benefits.

    Let me translate this: Not feeding cattle for a few days before slaughter, as when they are transported long distances, or feeding them poor-quality forages (like ethanol byproducts) increases the amount of E. coli found in their feces, which increases the chances it will end up in our food. Switching them to a hay diet clearly improves the odds this will not happen. The authors do not elaborate on why doing so is not feasible.

    This study is not alone in corroborating the 1998 study. "Pre-harvest factors influencing the acid resistance of Escherichia coli and E. coli O157:H7," in the Journal of Animal Science, 2003, volume 81:1080-1087, by C. J. Fu, J. H. Porter, E. E. D. Felton1, J. W. Lehmkuhler, and M. S. Kerley of the Department of Animal Science at the University of Missouri, also concluded that "These results supported the conclusion that high concentrate diets could make the fecal E. coli acid resistant in ruminant animals (Diez-Gonzalez et al., 1998)."

    Regarding your comment in agreement that "to suggest switching cattle from grain to forage based on a small piece of the scientific evidence is inappropriate and irresponsible," I have to laugh. The scientific evidence overwhelmingly corroborates the idea that grain is a toxic, unnatural diet for ruminants. How can switching their diet back to the one evolution designed their stomachs to handle be irresponsible?

    I want to thank you for sending me on a few hours of most edifying research reading. To your and Marler's larger point, however, that enterohaemorrhagic E. coli is present in all livestock to some extent, regardless of diet, I do not disagree. The literature seems clear, however, that it is present in far greater amounts in ruminants being fed grain-based diets.

    Where I part company with you both is the idea that food can be made risk free if only the right regulations are properly enforced and people are sued. Real food is alive, with good bacteria and bad bacteria. It comes from the earth, or from animals that eat solar-powered food from the earth, and it is best nourished by the animal fertilizer that nature designed as a very efficient nutrient recycling system. The idea that spinach fields must be quarantined not just from cattle, but from any wild animals, is an industrial solution to an industrial problem.

    As you point out, children can get sick from petting zoos. They can get sick from pasteurized milk and cat litter boxes and uncooked eggs in cookie batter. It is ridiculous to think that we can make our food system 100% safe. All these measures to try and do so reminds me of the war on terrorism. What freedoms, what nutritiousness, are we giving up in this futile quest to control every risk factor?

    Shit happens. People die sometimes for something preventable. But I am wary of those who propose one-size-fits-all solutions that ignore some of the riskiest behavior at the root of the problems. If you guys want to eat only food grown hydroponically in a sterile solution, then irradiated before serving — well … bon appetit!