Survey probes raw milk attitudes

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Written by Nicholas Grube, The Triplicate May 22, 2009 07:05 am

State research comes year after local outbreak

The California Department of Public Health is conducting a research survey in Del Norte County to learn more about people’s attitudes and beliefs regarding raw milk.

In particular, researchers want to interview residents who were involved in Alexandre Family EcoDairy Farms’ cow-share program that was the vehicle for distributing unpasteurized milk to its customers. Health officials say it also was the source of a campylobacter outbreak that sickened more than a dozen people, including one woman who was paralyzed and placed on a ventilator shortly after drinking the product.

“The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) surveys people frequently on the various public health issues to better understand these issues from the people’s point of view,” California Public Health Spokesperson Norma Arceo said in an email. “Raw milk is one of those issues where the public have various viewpoints regarding its health effects. Therefore, CDPH would like to better understand these various viewpoints through this survey.”

Raw milk seems to be a growing fad amongst health-food afficionados and so-called localvores, who try to buy food as close to home as possible to cut down on the environmental impact. Some believe raw milk carries curative properties for ailments such as allergies and asthma, while others say they just like the taste and the idea that it is a probiotic similar to yogurts that have active cultures in them to aid in digestion.

But raw milk can contain a number of foodbourne pathogens, including E. coli, salmonella, listeria and campylobacter because it has not gone through the pasteurization process meant to kill these harmful bacteria. This has caused the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, as well as many other government agencies, to urge consumers to stay away from the product as it can pose serious health risks.

California Public Health officials said the survey information collected in Del Norte County will eventually be used to improve teaching mechanisms for telling people about this product.

“The results of the survey will help us better understand what people know and think about raw milk,” Arceo said. “The results will be summarized in a report in the future. The report will be used to inform the public and the public health community about the knowledge and thoughts of the people surveyed regarding raw milk.”

Arceo refused to comment on the details of the survey, saying that could bias the responses. She also said there are “no plans” to work with the state Department of Food and Agriculture to change any of the regulations regarding raw milk.

Currently, there are only two dairies in California that meet state regulations and are licensed to sell raw milk. The Alexandre dairy was able to side-step these regulations through its cow-leasing program because it allowed customers to buy a share of a cow and therefore have partial ownership of the animal and its milk.

In October 2008, the California and Del Norte County Departments of Public Health, along with other state and federal agencies, produced an investigation report regarding the local outbreak of campylobacter and its association with raw milk.

Arecommendation in that report was to survey all other California dairies in the state to find out if there were other cow-sharing programs, and consider measures to prevent future outbreaks. That report also included a recommendation to “continue public education efforts regarding health risk associated with consuming unpasteurized milk and unpasteurized milk products.”

One of the authors of that document was Dr. Amy Karon, an epidemic intelligence service officer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She is also named on a letter sent to survey candidates as the main person to contact with questions about the study being conducted in Del Norte.

Karon did not comment on the research survey, and referred all questions to the California Department of Public Health’s public affairs office.

The letter sent to former cow-share members states that the county health department is working with the state to conduct this research. But local health officials have said they haven’t had any involvement.

Del Norte County Public Health Officer Dr. Thomas Martinelli, who co-authored the October campylobacter report with Karon, said he only learned about the survey last week through an email.

“They’re just wanting to get the information about the attitudes of people in Del Norte County about raw milk,” Martinelli said. “I think they’re just trying to get a little idea of the psyche of people who would put themselves in the position of drinking raw milk when there are obvious dangers.”

A number of people who were involved in Alexandre’s cow-share program have already received phone calls from researchers. The questions, they say, are general and tend to revolve around whether people know the various dangers associated with with consuming unpasteurized milk.

Sarah Valley, of Crescent City, was one of the people who was interviewed recently as a part of the survey. She was a member of the local cow-share program before it shut down, and she said she was not one of the people who became ill during the campylobacter outbreak.

Valley said she hasn’t been able to find another source for raw milk since the Alexandre’s discontinued their operation and is a loyal proponent of the product.

“It’s just a better whole food,” she said. “You haven’t killed all the enzymes and all the probiotics.”

Even though she participated in the survey, Valley said she didn’t really trust that it was objective, saying it seemed like the interviewers “had their own agendas” and were trying to “get their own answers.”

“They just want to tell you a list of all the things that could be a problem with raw milk, and asked if I would still drink it,” she said. “I told them, ‘Yes I would.’”


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