Linda Bock TELEGRAM & GAZETTE has been following this tragedy since the beginning, and her recent story – “CSI: Listeria – State health lab used DNA ‘fingerprints’ to find listeria source” – continues our fascination with the crime scene investigation of “the recent Listeria outbreak linked to three deaths and one miscarriage.”

However, her story misses the point a bit. Although she correctly points out that the outbreak “could have gone on indefinitely without the “detectives” at the state’s public health laboratory, who tracked down, fingerprinted, identified and photographed the dangerous strain of bacteria, and then posted the prints in a national computer database to safeguard others,” the real heroes in this and most outbreaks are the victims and their families who both are the “canaries in the coal mine” and assist in the investigation. As Ms. Brock reports:

Health officials said their first evidence of an outbreak also wound up breaking the case. That happened in November when the family of an elderly man who had fallen ill told hospital officials he may have consumed unpasteurized apple cider purchased at a farm stand in Norfolk County. Hospital staff advised the family to bring the cider to local health officials. The family brought in both the cider and a bottle of coffee-flavored milk purchased at the same stand. The local health agent sent the samples on to the state lab.

Next time, do not forget the victims.

I also was stuck by the quote of Dr. Alfred DeMaria Jr., about the safety of pasteurized milk:

It’s the first time pasteurized milk has been linked to a Listeria outbreak since ’83 in Massachusetts. What that implies is that pasteurized milk is extraordinarily safe. People should have confidence in pasteurized milk.

Oh really? Perhaps not so fast. Pasteurized milk has been the source of a number of significant outbreaks over the last twenty-five years. However, in every one of the outbreaks, the contamination occurred because of a failure in the pasteurization process (heat too low) or in contamination post-pasteurization (contamination at bottling or additives). So, raw milk folks, do not get too excited – pasteurization works, or certainly should.

OK, I have now sued three raw milk dairies in the last three years for poisoning their customers with E. coli O157:H7.  I have been attacked via email or by bloggers as being anti-small farmer or worse, a tool of “Big Dairy,” despite fifteen years of fighting against every large food company in the United Sates on behalf of victims of food poisoning.

As a father, lawyer and food-safety activist, I have come to be increasingly uneasy about this raw milk issue.  I have been giving this plenty of thought: On the one hand, yes, individuals should have the right to produce and consume raw milk.  On the other hand, suppose one of your or my daughters had been one of those recent children sickened by raw milk –  a product that is being sold as healthful – even with claims that it kills “bad” bacteria.

Because I don’t believe in the safety of our nation’s meat supply, my children do not eat hamburger at home.  Their friends’ parents and their teachers know that they don’t eat hamburger at anyone else’s homes, at birthday parties, and in the school cafeteria.  But, raw milk is not like hamburger, or is it?  That is exactly what I have been thinking these past few months as I witness more and more children being poisoned by a product that is touted as good for you and safe.

The environment in which the cows graze (on grass or on grain) contains microorganisms that can find their way into the cows gut or onto hair or udder, so whether you are milking or killing the cow and turning it into hamburger, the risk of bacterial contamination is there.

I do not have all the answers.  In fact, I do not have many of them.  That’s why I want you and I to be looking at these things together.  During the next months, we will be taking up in this blog issues associated with raw milk.  We have to get back to that old-fashioned entity of conscience – yours, mine and societies in general.