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Raw milk experts question 'dangerous' CDC findings

By Darcy Wintonyk | CTV.ca British Columbia


Home on the Range owner Alice Jongerden holds up a jar of raw milk from her Chilliwack, B.C., farm. January 8, 2010.
Mark McAfee, CEO of Organic Pastures, is pictured with his wife Blaine on his Fresno, California farm.

The B.C. Centre for Disease control is warning consumers not to consume raw dairy from a Chilliwack, B.C., farm after five samples of its products tested positive for fecal matter.

The Ethical Kitchen in North Vancouver, B.C., was used as a raw milk depot until it was shut down by Vancouver Coastal Health in December 2009.

Raw dairy enthusiasts are challenging lab results by the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), saying samples of unpasteurized milk deemed dangerous by the agency does not prove the product is unfit for consumption.

Earlier this week, the B.C. CDC warned consumers against drinking unpasteurized milk from the Home on the Range Farm in the Fraser Valley, citing fecal contamination found in five of 15 samples.

The CDC said the products, including unpasteurized raw milk, yogurt, cream, butter and cream cheese, were contaminated with germs from the bowels of human or animals.

The samples were obtained after several of the farm's raw milk depots were given cease and desist orders by Fraser and Vancouver Coastal Health in December. The shutdown was ordered after the CDC said a child became sick after drinking raw milk. Fraser Health has not definitively linked the illness to the product.

CDC sampling results obtained by ctvbc.ca revealed bacteria counts in the milk in excess of 15 times the amount allowable in Washington State, B.C.'s closest regulated neighbour. The sale of unpasteurized dairy is illegal in Canada, but coops like Home on the Range go around the law by allowing members to own stakes in the farm -- making them part owners.

Dr. John Carsley of Vancouver Coastal Health told ctvbc.ca the results are a clear signal the milk isn't clean.

"It's very hard to keep milk clean and that's why there's pasteurization," Carsley said, adding recent independent testing confirm the CDC's original findings.

"We did this testing because the child got sick and it could make more kids sick."

But Mark McAfee, the CEO of California's largest and oldest raw milk operation, said coliform counts aren't indicative of whether raw dairy is unsafe to drink.

"It doesn't tell you much about the milk but more about how it's managed," he said from the Fresno-area farm.

"Coliforms say how much exposure to air there is after milking, how clean the lines are and the like -- how many valves it's gone through."

McAfee, who created the first international safety standards for raw milk, said normally occurring bacteria in raw dairy doubles every 22 minutes -- and that's not a bad thing.

"This is what creates yogurt, and this is great, but it doesn't give you representative numbers for lab testing if you do don't do the sampling right away, or if the temperature changes.

Yesterday, B.C.'s provincial health officer reiterated the danger of drinking raw milk, saying anyone with the product should dump it out or risk getting sick.

"That can be anything from a relatively mild nausea, to diarrhea, to severe bloody diarrhea, kidney shut-down and even death if you get a high-dose of E. coli," Dr. Perry Kendall said.

Not deterred

Recent lab tests and danger warnings aren't enough to deter raw milk enthusiasts, who say positive benefits of drinking raw milk - like increased immune response - outweigh any potential hazards.

"This hasn't changed anything," Home on the Range owner Alice Jongerden said.

"We're quite satisfied about how things are, the cleanliness, and the way the system works from the milk to the jar."

Barbara Schellenberg, the owner of the North Vancouver restaurant used as a raw milk depot before the Dec. shut down, said high bacteria counts in milk doesn't concern her, adding that she feeds the milk to her one-year-old daughter.

"To me it's something that's natural. It's a part of life and we think humans are designed to eat sterile food and I don't think that's the right approach," she said.

"I hope it doesn't change things for people."

Dr. Carsley isn't surprised health agency warnings are falling on deaf ears.

"Nothing we say they will believe and that's fine," he said.

He hopes making the test results public will discourage people from joining the quickly-growing raw milk movement.

"We just don't want the general public to get on the bandwagon."

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