Rosemary Parker of the Kalamazoo Gazette has stepped into the middle of the “raw milk wars” with her story yesterday – “FDA joins investigation of illnesses possibly linked to unpasteurized milk distributed by Vandalia, MI., farm.”

The FDA is collaborating with the Michigan Department of Community Health, the Illinois Department of Public Health, the Indiana State Board of Animal Health and the Indiana State Health Department to investigate the outbreak of campylobacteriosis. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Friday it has joined state health departments in Michigan, Illinois and Indiana to alert consumers to an outbreak of campylobacter, a nasty diarrhea-and-fever producing illness, which it believes is associated with consumption of milk originating from Forest Grove Dairy in Middlebury, Ind., and distributed by Family Farm Cooperative.

The Farm’s Lawyer’s Perspective:

“I don’t agree (the disease outbreak) has been linked to the milk,” said Stephen Bemis, the farm’s attorney. “That’s what the health department has said, but they are not sharing with us what their investigation has shown. “We know there has been flu going around,” Bemis said, “and we know people who never drank this or any raw milk who were sick.”

Bemis said the farm was contacted March 1 by one of its herd share members who had fallen ill. The next day, 200 more cooperative members were contacted and advised of the situation; although a few other members described flu-like symptoms, “there was no huge smoking gun” until March 11, when a member reported being ill and testing positive for the campylobacter bacteria, Bemis said.

The farm’s own tests of milk and water showed no detectable levels of campylobacter, and milk delivery resumed. The cooperative is conducting a detailed survey of the herd share members who consumed the milk, Bemis said. But at this point “based on the testing we’ve done, we don’t see a link.”

The Health Department’s Perspective:

"Since March 1, 24 people in southeastern Michigan who have drunk milk from that dairy have fallen ill," said James McCurtis, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Community Health, which issued the first public health alert March 19.

So far this year 165 cases of campylobacter illness have been reported to the Michigan Department of Community Health, McCurtis said. The bacteria can be spread from contact with feces from infected pets, contact with infected farm animals, and contaminated foods other than milk, he said.

McCurtis said that in this outbreak, though, milk is the “common denominator” among people reporting the illness in southeast Michigan. In addition, he said, some of the Family Farms’ Cooperative milk tested from the supply provided by those who fell ill did test positive for campylobacter.

So, “Do governments sit back and let people get sick or do we warn people that raw milk does pose risk?" McCurtis asked. “When should state agencies back off? Right now we have 24 cases related to the outbreak, of those 12 were confirmed.

“No matter what we tell people about the risks there will be people who drink (raw milk) and that’s their right,” McCurtis said. “But our job is to protect the people of Michigan, to tell people when there is an outbreak, and that these are the symptoms.”

Time will tell.