A consistent pattern of harassment against raw milk farmers is emerging in Pennsylvania and New York. We are sending this Action Alert to all members because these tactics could be used in other states as well. It is vital for raw milk farmers to know how to protect themselves from unfair treatment by inspection agents, and for consumers to protest to the proper officials that their access to raw milk is being unfairly threatened.
We are watching this situation very closely and will be submitting Freedom-of-Information requests in both states to obtain test records and any statements by officials on this situation.
A concerted letter writing campaign by WAPF members can really help this situation and help ensure a supply of raw milk in these two very important states. . . so we are asking that everyone pitch in with their most persuasive writing skills!
Since April, a total of nine farmers have been told that their milk tested positive for listeria monocytogenes. The positive tests appear to coincide with the FDA’s issuance in March of a powerpoint presentation on the “dangers of raw milk.” There are NO reports of anyone getting sick from drinking the milk of any of these nine farms.
Please note that the generic bacteria listeria is ubiquitous and not harmful, although its presence in milk is considered a red flag. Only one strain, listeria monocytogenes (l-mono), is considered pathogenic. The standard protocol is to test milk for listeria and, if the test is positive, to then test for the specific bacteria listeria monocytogenes, a process that takes five days or more.
According to a lab technician employed by Mosely Laboratories in Indianapolis, which uses the standard protocol for detecting l-mono, results are 100 percent accurate. The technician stated that of the fifty tests on raw milk that he has run for l-mono over the past two years, not a single one has been positive.
The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture is using a new testing system, Called Vidas 30, which they claim can determine the presence of l-mono in 48 hours “with 98 percent accuracy.” (The Vidas 30 system is also said to detect the presence of salmonella, e.coli and campylobacter.)
The first case involved a raw milk dairy in Butler County, Pennsylvania. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA), the milk tested positive for l-mono on April 13 and sales of the milk were banned. The PDA issued a press release, warning about the milk from the dairy, but nothing in the press release indicated that there was a positive test for l-mono. After three subsequent negative tests, sales were reinstated at the farm. PDA did not issue a press release after reinstatement of sales.
The second case involved a farm in Berks County, Pennsylvania. The statewide PDA press release stated that milk tested positive for l-mono on May 10. According to the farmer, PDA claimed the 48-hour test results showed the milk was positive for l-mono. Subsequently, the agency reversed its position and concluded that the milk was negative for l-mono. PDA took a second sample of milk from the farm on May 17, which also tested negative, and sales were reinstated on May 24. At the request of the farmers, PDA issued a press release stating that the milk from the farm had tested negative for l-mono, but sent it only to a local television station.
A third case involved a farm in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. The PDA press release stated that milk from Green Acthe farm tested positive for listeria on June 1. PDA told the farmer that the preliminary test showed the milk was positive for l-mono. Final test results indicated that it was positive as well. The farmer sent a milk sample from a different batch to an independent laboratory, Mosely Lab of Indianapolis, and the test results were negative for l-mono. Subsequently, PDA took a second sample of milk and that sample was negative for l-mono. The farmer took a sample from the same batch, sent it to Mosely Lab, and that sample also tested negative for l-mono. Even though PDA usually requires three negative tests from its own laboratories to let a farm resume sales, it evidently accepted the results from Mosely and required no further tests for l-mono. The second sample PDA took showed that the milk had a high coliform count, and when a follow-up sample showed that the coliform count was at an acceptable level, the state permitted sales to resume on June 13.
A fourth case involves a farm in Clarion County, Pennsylvania. The PDA press release stated that the milk from the farm tested positive for listeria on June 14. PDA contacted the farmer on June 15 to tell him that his milk had tested positive for l-mono. On June 20 the farmer sent a sample of milk to Biotech Labs in New Castle; and, even though the milk tested positive for listeria, final tests resultsshowed that it was negative for the l-mono strain. On June 26, the farmer sent two samples of milk to Mosely Lab and a week later the test results came back negative for l-mono. PDA is supposed to be running another test for l-mono; but as of this date, it has yet to take a sample so raw milk sales at the farm have not resumed.
New York Cases
In New York, five different farms have tested positive for l-mono, according to the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.
The first involved an Allegany County farmer whose milk tested positive for listeria, and which prompted a December 26 warning from the New York State Agriculture Commissioner Patrick H. Brennan against drinking unpasteurized milk.
One case involved Dawn and Jeffrey Sharts of Beech Hill Farms. The farm has sold milk into the conventional market for over thirty years. Last year the farm obtained a permit to sell raw milk, at which time, says Dawn Sharts, “the inspectors suddenly began treating me like I was selling toxic waste.” When the milk from the Sharts’ farm tested positive for l-mono last spring, the department put a press release on its website announcing the positive test. Several weeks later, when subsequent tests showed the milk to be negative, the department refused to take the press release off the website.
Unlike Pennsylvania, the Sharts’ believe the problem with testing in New York is that the department uses antiquated manual measurement methods to test instead of electronic measurement. A sample taken by the state and tested for somatic cell count had ten times the level than did a sample taken that same day tested by a lab for Sharts’ pasteurization plant. They also accuse inspectors of using careless testing methods, for which they have videos of the inspectors’ actions at the farm to back up this claim.
Action to Take
1. We are asking all members to alert their farmers about what is going on. Any time the state takes a test sample, the farmer should send his own sample to an independent laboratory. It is probably not a bad idea to videotape any sample taking and inspections. If the farmer is accused of having l-mono in his milk, he should immediately contact the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund at (703-208-FARM)
2. Please contact the following officials by email. If you live in Pennsylvania or New York, it would be very good to send a snail mail letter to the officials in your state. The tone of the letter should be polite but concerned. Points to include:
- Describe how you and your family depend on raw milk for your health.
- Protest the unfair treatment to farmers doing their best to comply with the law (this is especially true in Pennsylvania, where the PDA has campaigned to get farmers to obtain licenses.)
- Demand that the state issue a press release when the farm has been given permission to resume sales, to be posted on the department’s website and sent to the same media list that received the initial press release.
- Point out that the present testing for listeria is an overreaction to a problem that does not exist. According to a certified report from the Centers for Disease Control on foodborne illness caused by raw milk 1972-2005, there is not a single outbreak due to listeria in raw milk or raw milk products other than three cases involving Mexican-style raw milk cheeses smuggled over the border (known as “suitcase cheese”).
- In Pennsylvania: Ask that only the preferred methodology as outlined by the FDA be used in testing for l-mono, which has a greater accuracy than the new testing system used by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. In New York: Ask that inspectors use careful and standardized testing procedures.
People to Contact
Honorable Edward G. Rendell
Governor, State of Pennsylvania
225 Main Capitol Bldg.
Harrisburg, PA 17120
governor (at) state.pa.us
Honorable Dennis C. Wolff
Secretary of Agriculture
2301 North Cameron Street
Harrisburg, PA 17110
dwolff (at) state.pa.us
Mr. Bill Chirdon
Director, Bureau of Food Safety and Laboratory Services
2301 N. Cameron Street
Harrisburg, PA 17110
wchirdon (at) state.pa.us
Honorable Eliot Spitzer
Governor of New York
Albany, NY 12224
Email through website – http://220.127.116.11/govemail
New York Department Agriculture and Markets
10 B Airline Drive
Albany, NY 12235
Patrick.hooker (at) agmkt.state.ny.us
Dairy Division Director
New York Department of Agriculture and Markets
10 B Airline Drive
Albany, NY 12235
will.francis (at) agmkt.state.ny.us
We would like to file a Freedom of Information Action (FOIA) for each of the
farmers, which will request information on testing procedures and test results.
This should ideally be done by a customer of the farmer, and at least by someone
living in the respective state. We have drafted language and can help with the
filing. So we need nine volunteers to file the requests. If you would like to
volunteer for this task, please contact Cathy Raymond at cathy (at) farmtoconsumer.org