Our family had a food safety wake-up call in January 2012 when some of our raw milk customers were diagnosed with diarrhea from campylobacter. I'm sure you read about it in the news at the time. If you did not read about it then, I think it is important that you read about it now.
Below are the archived newsletters from that month. I know it is a lot of reading and it gets a little emotional (sorry…it was the worst time of our lives). As you read through these letters you will get a feel for our family and farm, who we are, what we believe, how much we care, and the level of our integrity, but most important, the unprecedented proactive steps we have taken to ensure it never happens again.
This incident was the catalyst that has made our raw milk super safe. The food safety plan that we have in place now since January 2012 is unmatched in any milk—raw or pasteurized. We go far beyond any and all State raw milk testing requirements. We now have our own on-farm laboratory and we test and hold every lot of milk that we bottle. Even pasteurization dairies do not do this.
The take-home message is that we are continually striving for new and better ways to produce safer foods.
These letters tell the story as it unfolded in real life (notice the dates). Be sure to read them in order.
To receive our newsletters as they are written, sign-up here.
Important Notice - 1-27-2012, 11:31pm
The Heart Of Your Farmer - 1-30-2012, 9:01am
Hallelujah! - 1-30-2012, 2:54pm
A Word From Edwin - 2-1-2012, 12:06pm
It was us - 2-3-2012, 7:39am
Where Do We Go From Here? - 2-3-2012, 11:44am
Great News, Folks! - 2-6-2012, 9:30pm
The Family Cow Sets Her Own Standards - 2-16-2012, 8:08pm
Crossing The Rubicon - 3-5-2012, 6:10pm
by Edwin Shank, January 27, 2012, 11:31pm
We at The Family Cow have decided to voluntarily halt sales of our raw milk at least for Saturday and Monday. We’ll keep you posted. Read for more details…
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,... it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way..." Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
This week our family faced a food provider's “worst of times”…customers calling to say they are sick. We have had several customer/families call to say that have been experiencing acute diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps. (If this includes some of you on this list, be assured our whole family is fervently praying and you have been on our minds all week. We pray for a speedy and complete recovery for you and your whole family.)
Even though we did not know (and still do not know) if the illnesses and our farm were connected, we are concerned. We do not take even a suspicion of food-borne illness lightly. We took action accordingly. Here is what we did.
We reviewed our last several months' pathogen testing. All are clean…100% negative for all four pathogens: Campylobacter jejune, Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes and Ecoli O157:H7 all negative. Good, but that was history. We, in conjunction with PDA sent four samples of this week’s raw milk bottling off to be pathogen tested just to be double and triple sure. The first preliminary test of those came back today. Again, negative.
Admittedly we are skeptical if this apparently powerful diarrhea bug we were hearing about is actually connected to our farm or if it was something going around in other communities not in any way connected to us. Especially we are puzzled how it could possibly be from our milk since none of our family is ill. Neither are our partners here at the farm… and we all drink glassfuls of the same raw milk that we sell.
We made phone calls to other communities to see if they could give us clues. Many reported that the diarrhea is striking whole families in their area too. Some have had it for as long as 10 days before it got better. When we called back to check up on those who had called us originally, some reported that they had heard from family members who do not drink raw milk and who do not live with them who also had the diarrhea.
So, what do we know?
There are families who have diarrhea. Some of them have tested positive for campylobacter. Some of these families buy raw milk from our farm. Many families have the diarrhea but who do not buy our raw milk or any foods from our farm. None of our family of 8 or Neil’s family of 8 is sick in any way. Neither are any of the rest of our employees.
This afternoon the PA Department of AG called and called asked me to participate in a conference call between themselves and The PA Department of Health. They basically told us what we already knew. There are families with diarrhea and some of them drink raw milk from our farm. They acknowledged that some of the family members who are sick did not drink the milk. They explained that this is easily possible because campylobacter is easily transmitted from one person to another.
They did obtained a partially empty jug of milk from the fridge of one of the families who is sick. They are testing that milk now and the results will not be known for sure till Monday. If the milk from the partially used jug does test positive, the question still remains if the milk carried the bacteria to the household and made them sick or if the sick household carried the bacteria to the milk.
I’m not being crass and unfeeling here. Remember, we have six children aged 5 to 19 so Dawn and I know first-hand just how careful they are to never touch the inside of the lid with their fingers, never lay the lid on a counter top or table with the inside down, never drop it on the floor, never touch the open top, never let the jug sit with the lid open, and of course never drink straight from the jug. These things are just part of life and are very normal and to be expected, but it does highlight that pathogen tests from a partially used jug are really pointless.
To cut to the quick: In spite of all the above facts and even though our pathogen test do not show any sign of contamination. We have decided to voluntarily halt our raw milk sales till we get further confirmation to continue. (The state is not forcing us to stop selling milk. They cannot because there have been no positive pathogen tests from our milk.)
Please accept our apologies for this inconvenience. We are very sorry. I know many of you will be upset since you, like us, depend on this milk. We as a family of course will continue to drink the milk as we see no reason to fear it, but I think you understand why, under the circumstances we think it is best to halt selling for now. We are working closely with the PDA and PDH and we expect to resume sales hopefully as soon as next Tuesday. All our other foods including cheeses, butter, cream etc will continue as normal.
If you have milk in your refrigerators that has a “best by” date in February, we recommend you keep it but do not drink it till we can inform you further on Monday. If your milk has a date in January, we recommend you discard it. We will refund your money.
Please send all questions to: ********@thefamilycow.com. Because of the volume of questions that we will receive, please do not expect a personal answer. We will read all questions and comments and try to answer all of them in an email newsletter to keep you updated.
If you wish to cancel Saturday's drop point order since we will now not be bringing milk, we will understand. For this communication please only use ********@thefamilycow.com
Special note to our wholesale accounts: We ask that you pull all our milk from your shelves for now. We will be in touch with all of you as soon as possible on Monday to work out a plan.
In these situations it is always a hard call to decide what is expedient and cautious and what is reactionary. We have tried to make the best decision. I’m sure some of you will approve but some of you may not. The least we ask of you is to feel our love and concern and to respect our decision in this. We’ll keep you posted.
Please pray for us.
Edwin and Dawn Shank and Family
by Edwin Shank, January 30, 2012, 9:01am
After the hundreds of emails on Saturday and Sunday, we realize again how dear you all have become to us. Your messages of encouragement, forgiveness, understanding, advice, and information have touched our hearts. If you could have peeked in our office window, more than once you would have caught Dawn and I sitting at the computer wiping tears.
One thing we want to make clear. In spite of some over-eager reporting, there have been NO positive campylobacter tests from unopened containers of our raw milk either by the PDA lab or from QC Labs, the certified lab that we use. There are 4 samples, between us and the PDA, which are being tested presently. We expect them later today. We will tell you as soon as we have test results back. But for right now, I just wanted to share my heart. It has been a very emotional time for our family and it may not be over yet.
When your emails started pouring in, one thing became immediately obvious. There is an unusually powerful stomach and lower gastrointestinal illness with acute 7-10 day diarrhea going through our communities. Some say it’s nationwide. (I have copied a few samples of the reports we have received at the bottom of this page just to give you an idea. We have countless like them from an eight state area.) So, if we were looking for an easy way out, and looking to shift the blame, it looks like we could have our answer…it’s not us! It’s not our milk! It’s a virus. It’s the flu. It is nationwide so don’t blame us!
But we really aren’t looking for an easy way out. We don’t want to shift the blame. We just want to know the truth and to get to the bottom of the issue. We are responsible for the food we produce and to you who trust us completely to do it right. As much as it is self-evident that there is a huge, contagious diarrhea epidemic currently going on around us, that fact does not rule out the possibility that we may also have had a problem with our milk which just happens to coincide with this major viral diarrhea outbreak.
Many of you think an illness is impossible from a dairy as clean, careful, and caring as we are and have told us so. We understand. We would like to think that too, but the fact remains that we are human and we want to be humble enough to admit that it could have been us… either we personally or an equipment failure. We will hopefully have the answer to that question yet today.
We very much understand and respect the logic and thought process whereby some of you feel strongly that it must have been something in the milk. We have listened and read your stories of diarrhea, cramping, fever and when it started in relation to when you bought milk. Our heart and prayers go out for all of you. I personally hope to call all of you today to check up on your family’s progress. We really do care. Our entire farm team had a group prayer for all of you before we started our chores this morning. We agree that the timing of the onset of illness, who it was that got ill, who drank milk and who didn’t, does sound convincing in many cases. But there is a bright side to all this...
In spite of the fear, guilt, concern and uncertainty that we feel at this point, there is one thing that is very sure.
This has happened for a purpose. All things do. One thing of which we are confident is this. We will be even better farmers than before. We will be producing even better milk than before. We are learning through this and you can rest assured we will not forget the lesson!
I tell our farm crew that this is like a fire drill. When that alarm goes off you do not know if this is a fire drill, a false alarm, or if is a real fire. But that is beside the point. You respond the same. You perform as if it is real. And if it turns out to be a false alarm or a drill, at least you got to check out your awareness levels. If the experience shows up any weakness, you change your system, rules and organization and all are made better through it.
Stay tuned to your emails today. We’ll let you know as soon as we know more.
Please join us in prayer for any and all who are sick during this time regardless of the reason. And while you are praying, please pray for us too. We need it. Especially pray for Dawn, she is taking it hard.
Thank you so much!
Edwin and Dawn Shank and Family
Answers to a few questions:
- All of our raw milk sales will be suspended for today and maybe longer. We’ll keep in touch.
- You may still shop at our store for all our other foods.
- Our butter, cheeses, and cream, also are 100% OK
- The Goat milk form Caprine Delight is 100% OK
- Trickling Springs Creamery’s milk is 100% OK. In fact, we recommend their organic non homogenized cream line milk as the best way to get our milk in its pasteurized form. Be sure to ask them for the organic milk.
- None of our family is sick in any way. Neither is any of Neil’s family or any of the farm crew. And we all drink copious amounts of raw milk every week.
For what it is worth, here is a small sample of the flood of reports we got from all over the area:
NJ: I called my pediatrician at the beginning of last week to see what kind of cases she was seeing - she said she'd received scores of calls and that the virus was lasting up to 2 weeks. These are people who aren't drinking your milk, and aren't even attending the same schools. It's a community virus and a bad one to be sure.
PA: Just letting you know that here in Carlisle, our family and friends have all been experiencing this same illness. It has affected both raw milk drinkers and those who never drink raw milk.
NJ: I want to let you know that I was very sick with acute diarrhea beginning the morning of Jan 18. The evening of Jan 19 I became dehydrated and required I.V. fluids at the Princeton Hospital ER. They did a stool culture and blood work. Both were negative for bacteria/pathogens. The ER doctor told me there are many "lower GI" viruses going around with some resulting in patients having diarrhea for 5 - 7 or more days. Thankfully I was better by the evening of Friday, Jan 20. However, my oldest son came down with the illness the next day. My reason for letting you know this is that of everyone in our house, my younger 2 children consume the largest amount of your raw milk. Neither of them became ill.
PA: Rest assured that the stomach virus that is going around has not been caused by your farm or your products. Both me and my husband suffered from it for over 2 weeks. We both went to the Dr's and we were both told that the virus (which is nationwide) is an "airborne" virus. Once you get the stomach bug, you just need to drink loads of liquids until it passes. We too had diarrhea as did everyone who contracted the virus.
PA: I have 2 children at Shipp U. There have been the SAME symptoms running rampant at the University... It lasts about 7 long days!
MD: I do not think this is in any way related to your milk. Several people we know who have been sick do not drink your milk. My hubby and I are both in the medical field and have not had this bug. It is the most common and spreads very easily. It is sad that people often look to blame others for something that happens to them. I am sorry for that on their behalf. We plan on still ordering milk from you and drinking it as long as you sell it. Thanks again for being you.
NJ: Several of my children and hubby also had this stomach virus -- I was and am assuming that this was a stomach bug -- we drank MORE raw milk (kefir) and took extra vitamin C and D -- along with some chopped up garlic .....They all recovered in 2-3 days and are up and running!
PA: We had an employee who was out all day yesterday with vomiting (so violently she said she feels as though every rib is broken) and diarrhea. Her daughter-in-law and two of three granddaughters are also ill with similar symptoms. Not a one of them drinks raw milk.
MD: For the past few weeks, I (being a trained holistic health counselor in my past) have been getting quite a few calls from friends who have had severe diarrhea, stomach cramps, etc. They blamed it on various things (i.e., food poisoning, etc.), and they do not purchase raw milk or food from your farm.
A Dr. wrote: This is not from your milk. There is an intestinal "bug" going around. I know family members and friends from the Midwest to the east coast who have been down with it. No raw milk involved. These things can come from so many sources. Don't despair, feel guilty, or question yourself. Please just continue to provide the quality, nutritious products to those that respectfully appreciate and understand it.
by Edwin Shank, January 30, 2012, 2:54pm
Friends of The Family Cow!
Praise the Lord! He has heard our prayers and yours too.
Jim McKnight from QC Laboratories in Southampton PA just called a few minutes ago.
All 12 pathogen tests from the three different bottling samples we sent off last week have come back 100% pathogen free!
All three bottling samples tested 100% free of the following four pathogens:
- Campylobacter jejune
- Listeria monocytogenes
- E.coli O157:H7
As far as if this is enough for the state to feel comfortable with us resuming sales? We do not know yet. I’ll find out when I talk to PA Department of Ag and the PA Department of Health in a conference call this afternoon. We are working in coordination with them on the issue. They have a job to do and we respect them for it. They have been very nice to work with through this all.
One thing some people are confused on. We actually were never shut down by the state. We halted sales voluntarily. The department of health was worried about the epidemiological connection of families with confirmed campylobacter cases who also drank raw milk from our farm, but they did not force us to shut down.
We will keep you posted on developments. We are not through this completely yet, but this sure helps!
The only thing that yet tempers our jubilance is the knowledge that many people, and some of them our customers, are still very much suffering from illness. Everyone please join our family and farm crew in fervent prayer for their complete and speedy recovery.
Then, and only then will we say double Hallelujah!
Your farmer ~ Edwin
PS. This verse has been special to me this week.
“Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” James 5:16
by Edwin Shank, February 1, 2012, 12:06pm
Many of you asked if our “Hallelujah” email two days ago means that we are selling The Family Cow raw milk again. The answer is: No, we are not selling the raw milk yet.
Technically we could be since QC Laboratories has proven (three times over) that the raw milk is now 100% safe. But, the Department of Health in conjunction with the Department of Ag is requesting that we wait a little longer as they continue their tests and evaluation. We understand their caution and we respect their request by continuing our voluntary halt in raw milk sales.
It is hard to be patient when we know you are all anxious and we know that our milk tests clean, but we are convinced that customer safety always takes top priority over market and customer demand. Thanks for understanding and respecting us in this decision.
100% of our other organic foods are OK to order or purchase here at the farm store. It is only the Raw Cow’s Milk that we are holding back till the state gives their blessing.
The Raw Milk is marked temporarily unavailable on the food list to reflect this. If you have questions about our selling status, just check the list. We will remove the temporarily unavailable tag as soon as the milk is ready to go.
Another clarification that I wish to make is in regards to the 12 “all clear” pathogen test we got back on Monday. These tests were for all the milk that we had on hand to test. The milk we tested was all bottled in January and went back to mid week of the 16th. All of it was milk with “best by” date codes for the month of February.( All of our bottles have a date on the shoulder that reads “best by” and then a date, like 2/04, 2/07, 2/09 etc. This date is always 14 days after the fill date and is essentially the expiration date). We were obviously, hugely relieved that these test came back clear. It proved, assuming there was a problem in the past, that there was no longer a problem with our milk.
These official, PA state approved and accepted tests that we had done at QC Laboratories that showed our milk to now be 100% pathogen free, do not completely rule out the possibility that there may have been a problem in the past with our milk, however. It is as I said in an earlier email. “Many of you think an illness is impossible from a dairy as clean, careful, and caring as we are and have told us so. We understand. We would like to think that too. But the fact remains that we are human and we want to be humble enough to admit that it could have been us…either we personally or an equipment failure.”
And it still remains that way. To date, in spite of some media twist, there has been absolutely no confirmed campylobacter found in any jug of our milk. Maybe there never will be. But then, maybe it doesn’t really make that much of a difference.
Because, In spite of the lack of scientific lab evidence, and regardless of whether the presence or absence of campy is ever scientifically proven or not, we as a Shank family have discussed it and decided to accept it as if is proven and take pro-active action accordingly.
We make this decision, not based on the lab test or state investigation but on what you as our customers have told us. We believe you. We value that you have shared your story with us and that we could talk about it together. We still pray for all of you daily.
So we move forward and are making many small, some major but all significant changes to our equipment, facilities, testing and herd care protocols to push the quality and safety of The Family Cow raw milk to even higher levels.
Some have warned us that it is not wise legally to acknowledge that there may have been a pathogen in our milk that made some of you ill. They warn us that it puts us in poor legal standing if we ever need to defend ourselves.
Well, of course we recognize and understand the logic and truth of that statement. But there is an ethical side to the equation which always grounds us and brings us back to our true north. And that is this: When it comes to your family’s safety, and the relationship we have with you as a customer, it’s not some lawyer's expectations that we are trying to live up to… it’s yours. We have faith that you will appreciate our caution, honesty, transparency and forthrightness. Maybe it’s not best for business but if it’s best for you… it’s good enough for us.
Love and Prayers, ~ Your farmers, Edwin and Dawn Shank and Family
II Samuel 22:2 “The Lord is my Rock, and my Fortress, and my Deliverer.”
by Edwin Shank, February 3, 2012, 7:39am
I know this is going to shock a lot of you. You trusted us to never do this. But...it was us. Food from our farm has made people sick.
The MD Department of Health reported yesterday that they have isolated campylobacter in two unopened jugs of our raw milk that they retrieved from a customer's refrigerator. The milk was bottled on January 16th and carried a best by date of 1/31.
So now the wondering, suspense and uncertainty is over for our family and farm crew and is replaced by humiliation and embarrassment. Dawn and I have shed a lot of tears over this. Now we know for sure what the growing list of emails and calls from you were pointing to. It was us. We are very sorry.
The milk that tested bad was all from one January 16th bottling. It all carries a "Best By" sticker of 1/31 on the jug. But to err on the side of caution, we reiterate what we first advised on our January 27th "Important Notice" newsletter, Discard any of our raw milk with a "Best Buy" date in January. Even if you made butter or cheese from our milk during that time, discard it too. Keep track of what you discard. Let us know how much you had to dispose of and we’ll give you a full refund. If you bought at a store, return the milk to them. They will refund you and we will refund them.
Many of you who have been ill have emailed us directly. Thank you so much for honoring our family that way. It shows a trust between us that has always been our goal. It was even more meaningful when we could talk to you directly by phone. As much as Dawn and I dreaded to see those emails and make those calls, it never failed to bring healing to our souls and bring strength to our hearts to hear the forgiveness in your voices and emails. We hope the emotional healing was mutual. We are so glad that we were able to personally express our sympathy and apologies.
If you are a family or person that was made ill by the bad milk and have not contacted us yet, please do. We would love to communicate with you personally. We really do care. You won’t be the first customer we have cried with this week. My personal email is: email@example.com. If you can, please leave your phone number too. Sometimes I get so tired of emailing that I would rather just talk.
Our whole family and farm team is praying fervently for your speedy recovery. Even Jefferson, who is 5, prays at every chance he gets that God would make all the sick people better again.
Please pray for our family too. We are not physically ill, but we are sick at heart and spirit. It is so hard for Dawn and I to accept and understand that we made some of our loyal customers sick when we were trying so hard to provide food for them just like we feed our own children!
To everyone who reads this, please pause a few minutes right now with our family in prayer for any and all who are sick.
In Jesus Name, AMEN.
Please, please… Those of you who have not been ill, do not criticize us for being this honest. I know what the lawyers and legal counselors would say. But frankly I don’t care anymore what they say. Dawn and I have prayed, fasted and agonized long and hard over how to say all of this.
We have decided that the only way we will ever have peace is to follow our hearts, our conscience, our God and His Word. We sense all four of these guiding lights in harmony with our decision and we have peace.
If our family’s sustainable, local, know-your-farmer-shake-his-hand food production and distribution model cannot stand up to Honesty and Truth… then I guess Dawn and I are in the wrong business.
Your Farmers ~ Edwin and Dawn Shank and Family
by Edwin Shank, February 3, 2012, 11:44am
NOTE: It is very hard for me to write this materialistic, factual, moving-forward email right on the trails of the last which took so much of my heart and spirit. It somehow seems a little like talking in church…breaking the hush of a solemn occasion. But we live in a real world and I know the last message left so many practical questions unanswered. I’ll try to cover some of them here.
What Is The Safety Status Of The Family Cow Raw Milk Today?
This is a very perceptive question because the MD samples that tested positive yesterday are over two weeks old. Those sample results are very important to the PA and MD Department of Health’s on-going epidemiology study, but they are history as far as the present safety status of our raw milk is concerned.
Let me share with you the steps our family took to sort through the fog of last week and this week to double check and re-verify that the current raw milk being produced at The Family Cow is safe and pathogen free This might get a little long…sorry but it feels like 100 years. :)
First we voluntarily halted all sales. Even though we at this time were working with a lot of unknowns we knew it was best to totally stop sales till we knew more. Next we called our PA certified milk tester and lab technician for assistance. At their direction we pulled three pints of fresh Family Cow raw milk from our store refrigerator, making sure each was from a separate bottling, packed them on ice in a Styrofoam cooler and rushed them via “FedEx Overnight “ to QC Laboratory. (QC Lab is a “PA approved” lab, which means that PDA accepts its testing as valid.) We requested that each of the 3 pints be tested for 4 separate pathogens. The pints were all from the bottling lots immediately following the suspected date of Jan 16th.
When QC labs called at Monday lunch time to confirm that all three of the samples were 100% pathogen free…all 12 totally negative tests including campylobacter jejune!... the whole family and team was ecstatic. There were hugs and high fives all around and some tears. There were even some hugs from customers who happened to be here. (Thank you for those…you know who you are :) We will never forget you!)
Why the ecstasy?... because these tests are of extreme significance. They accurately, scientifically reflect the present Safety of The Family Cow Raw Milk. They prove that the ‘bad-milk’ incident two weeks ago that we suspected and MD and PA Health are just now verifying, was a once-and-past-happening.
These fresh pints were all filled in three consecutive bottling’s, spread out over a whole week immediately following the ‘bad’ incident but before we knew there had been a ’bad’ incident. They are a perfect double blind study of our family and team’s daily performance. They were completely random, unprepared-for tests. The cows had been fed, and milked all following normal procedures. The bottles had been filled, capped and dated at our filler, and placed into the refrigerator. All of the steps had been done according to our normal protocol. And all this had been done without the slightest hint when we were doing it that these pints would be used as such crucial evidence of our performance.
How Can We Be Sure This Does Not Repeat? What Corrective Steps Have We Taken?
Good question! There are many small adjustments…here are a few of the big ones.
- Major Improvement to Our Hot Water System. We have used the down time to make these renovations. Extremely hot water is needed for washing the milk tank, milking system and bottler. We suspect a hot water heater that was making hot water (140-150 degrees) but not super-hot (160-170 degrees) played a part in this. We replaced the older heater with a high tech, computerized “tank-less” system that consistently delivers 180 degree water or hotter if we wish.
- A SMART Monitoring System: About the time this all was happening, Agri-Service, the local dairy supply and service company that also installed our new hot water system, was putting the finishing touches on a web based monitoring system for dairy. The timing was perfect…well, actually I wish it would have been a month earlier! This system monitors a whole handful of control points in the milking, cooling and washing process. And yes, one of the critical control points is hot water. If the new water heater loses capacity slowly like our old one did, run out of propane on any other of imaginable problem, the computer of this system will send an email alert to our phones instantly. This system is up and running now. Neil, Rodrick and I are beyond impressed! It makes so much sense…fix the problem before it becomes a REAL problem!
- We Are Outfitting Our Own Laboratory: Then we will be able to initiate a new test and hold protocol we have long dreamed of. By test and hold, we mean we will test every lot of milk we bottle and hold it till the test show that it is clear to go. This is a major food safety improvement! I’ll explain more later how the new testing protocol differs from what is required by PDA, but let’s just suffice to say that it’s the difference between looking in your rear-view mirror vs. the windshield while driving. My Dad is installing the cabinet today and Neil is purchasing the petri film, incubators and other equipment we will need. We will still use the state approved QC labs for all the official required testing, but this will give us an extremely proactive monitoring edge right here on the farm.
So When Do We Sell Milk Again?
I wish I could tell you, but we don’t have that answer for you at this time.
Wednesday afternoon during two separate consultations with PDA and PDH, we were told that there was nothing that would be illegal about us resuming sales. After a lot of serious discussion among our family, we decided to bring the raw milk back. Based on the renovations that we had made and the fact that we had so many clear pathogen tests even before we made the changes, we felt 100% confident in the decision. Thursday, we sent out announcements and informed our ecstatic customers at drop points and retail stores that we were bringing the raw milk again. We were just getting ready to put a newsletter out to everyone when PDA contacted us and instituted a whole new round of testing.
So this is where we are today. Waiting, selling lots of other foods from our farm and drop points, but the store fridge is empty. PDA says they will have their lab technicians work overtime to get the new testing done ASAP. We are cooperating with them to the best of our ability. We’ll let you know the second we have approval to go again.
Please be patient, friends. We will survive. You will survive. The Family Cow Raw Milk will survive and be back even better and safer and healthier than before.
Thanks so much for all your prayers and kind emails. They are exceedingly precious to our family. It makes us value each of your friendship and support more than ever!
All the Best of Food and Blessings and Best of Health to All,
Your Farmer ~ Edwin
by Edwin Shank, February 6, 2012, 9:30pm
The Family Cow Raw Milk Is Back
After a week of grueling testing and inspections, the PA Department of Agriculture (PDA) has given their full blessing for us to provide you and your families with milk again. They just finished their lab work today and called us with the results. All three of their samples also tested 100% free of four different pathogens. We had these exact same results last Monday from QC Labs but the state wanted to run their own tests at their Harrisburg lab so we had an additional week of waiting.
Thanks so much for your patience. I know it seemed silly after we had clear tests, but we understand their caution. Despite what many think, we have not found the state regulators hard to work with. Cautious, yes, following their rule book religiously, yes, but we understand their job and respect them.
A longtime customer who is also a veterinarian was at our store purchasing other foods when the PDA inspector walked up to do his final inspection. When she realized who he was and what was about to happen she said, “I’ll just wait.” As soon as he was finished, she immediately bought the first four gallons. It was so special to have her there to share the special moment and give us her bid of confidence.
We will be delivering to all drop points and all of our stores yet this week.
In this moment of rejoicing, please, everyone, do not forget those of our customers who had it rough the last week or earlier. Some are still not feeling too well and my concern is that we not make them feel like we are rejoicing while they are forgotten. Please continue to pray for their full and complete recovery. Dawn and I have been in contact with many of you via email or by phone, but we still want to call some more of you who had even a slight touch. It brings healing to our hearts to be able to personally say, “We are sorry.” You are not forgotten and are on our minds constantly. Our family will never forget the food safety lesson of 2012!
The forgiveness and levelheadedness expressed by those of you who were made ill is beyond our best hopes. Dawn and I feel so unworthy! Your forgiveness and continued confidence in us is surely a powerful testimony to the strength and beauty of the local, sustainable food movement. Here is an example of what one MD mother wrote on Jan. 28. As you will see, she gave me explicit permission to share her story with the group along with her name. “Thanks Ivy!”
We are one of the families who are listed in the "round-up". I was just discharged from the hospital yesterday with a positive culture of campylobacter, and my whole family - save one child (who also drinks your raw milk, but is only here half the time) has been very ill for a week. I'd like to say that ALL of us - including the child who is NOT ill, drank your raw milk. I find it very odd that the one child, who is the youngest, and would be the weakest, would NOT get food poisoning drinking the SAME milk.
I am VERY disappointed that the media and CDC is jumping to such huge conclusions. I was VERY clear in my interview with the CDC that though ALL of us drank your milk, not all of us were sick. I hate the fact that the media and state agencies are so hungry to point the finger at you, the outsider.
We have already discussed that we will continue to drink raw milk as a family. It's so funny, the doctor before discharge lectured me on not drinking raw milk anymore and I asked him, if when people got food poisoning through lettuce, or cantaloupe, or hamburger, he advised them not to eat those foods any longer either. He didn't like that question at all.
((Also, his lecture was before there was ANY presumption of where the bacteria may have come from, so he is assuming a LOT))
Anyway, we will be very sad if the bacteria did come from your operation, but if it did, it is the product of a single employee slipping in standards for a single moment in time, not the product of raw milk as a whole, or a reflection of you. We will continue to drink raw milk, just as we would continue to eat a food that had given us food poisoning, because it was not the food itself, but its handling for a while, that caused the illness.
We still support you, and you may show this letter to your other customers, family, and even the state officials if you'd like.
Ivy Wood & family
I always told people that we have special customers. That's why we do not lock our store... ever. That's why we trust you to figure up your own purchases after hours (sometimes after midnight!) and just leave your check or cash in the money box. But we still did not know till this week what a really special class of folks you are.
When I read Ivy's email, which was the first of many of its type, my eyes immediately welled up and I had a lump in my throat so big I couldn't talk for awhile. Folks, this is what makes local food sources special. This is what builds community. This is what gives the movement power, hope and resilience. This represents an attitude of love, grace and forgiveness that even we didn’t know to expect and even now do not feel worthy of. This is a forgiveness, power and strength that industrial food production will never know! This gives us as your farmers, renewed vision, energy, mission, hope and commitment. We are growing food for noble people! And we more than ever, are driven to return the favor with quality and safety that is better than ever.
Thank you one and thank you all. It will take us a while to work through the 1000 plus supportive emails that poured in during the last few days and we will never be able to reply to them all but be assured every single one was read, appreciated and has moved our hearts.
May God bless all of us as we move toward a better tomorrow. With your help and God’s, we are stronger, better, wiser and safer than yesterday.
All the best of Food, Blessings and Prayers,
Your Farmers ~ Edwin and Dawn Shank and Family
by Edwin Shank, February 16, 2012, 8:08pm
"You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can't please all of the people all of the time." -source unknown
I wish I knew who first observed this simple truth. It just might have been a raw milk farmer trying to balance and respond to the expectations of customers, state regulators, friends, federal regulators, family, news media, employees, food safety experts and fellow raw milk farmers. One thing for sure, I do recognize the feeling!
But even while squinting through the haze of these sometimes conflicting demands, another simple truth comes into focus so quickly that it startles us. And that is this: We really don't need to please everyone.
There is one all-important group of people whose satisfaction, approval and safety trumps all. And that is you, our customer friends. It is you who have chosen to make our organic farm your food source. It is you who have chosen our family as your farmers. So, in return, it is only fitting that our family is dedicated to you.
But haven't we always been dedicated to you? Haven't we always put your family's safety first by voluntarily meeting higher standards than required by the state for raw milk sales? Yes to both.
From the start, The Family Cow has been dedicated to your safety. We are fully permitted by the PA Dept. of Ag for raw milk sales. We fully comply with the state on all farm and bottling inspections, herd health testing, milk testing, and other regulations for raw milk farms. From the very first month of raw milk sales in 2008, Dawn and I decided that we would voluntarily increase the frequency of the state-required pathogen test by 12 times. And we did. We both agreed that we wanted to go over and above the law voluntarily because we didn’t know if we could live with ourselves if we ever made anyone sick. We also reasoned that if anyone ever did get sick from our farm that at least we would have the peace of conscience to know that we were not negligent.
But there was a weakness. It did not appear as such at the time, but reality has been driven home during the past three weeks.
Here is the issue. All of the state’s required testing for raw milk is "post consumption, monitoring type" testing. This means that even though we voluntarily took their required testing protocol as a pattern and conscientiously increased the testing frequency several times for good measure, we still were not protecting you as our customers in real-time.
I don't know if "post consumption, monitoring type testing" is the proper words to describe this or not, but here is what I mean. With off-farm testing, the lag time from when the milk sample is taken, and when the results are reported back to us is at least a week, sometimes more. In that amount of time, the milk is all in your refrigerators and probably most has been consumed. This is great if the test is clear. But if not... it still hurts too much to think about it. Let it suffice to say that it puts both your family and ours in a very undesirable position!
As the January recall heated up, Dawn and I were forcefully impressed that we had to chart totally new waters. We knew the only way forward was to develop our own procedure to actually test for food safety in real time. We knew that we never again would be satisfied with anything less than a “test and hold” protocol.
Our whole Family Cow team jumped into action. My father, who is an experienced carpenter as well as a farmer, started building, Neil started researching, and with everyone working together we set in motion the installation of our own laboratory right here on the farm. It didn’t matter anymore what the state said or what their requirements were. It didn’t matter if we were already superseding what the raw milk laws required. If it was historic testing, and if it was not done at each and every bottling, it was not good enough for our Family Cow families. We weren’t and still aren’t sure if anyone in PA has ever done this before but that didn’t matter either. It didn’t matter that it might be expensive or cause additional work. All that mattered was that you and your families would be safe. And that meant we would have to test the milk ourselves, on the farm, in real time, so that we could get test results from each bottling without delay before we offered the milk to your family.
Fast forward to today. The lab is completed. The equipment is installed and we now test a sample from each day we bottle. Neil had previous lab experience from another job, so we naturally put him in charge of the testing. So far we have run 6 tests on three separate bottlings. All were super clean. Our coliforms averaged <1/ml and Standard Plate Count (SPC) <1000/ml. State regulation for raw milk sales limits coliforms to 10/ml and SPC to be 20,000/ml.
I know this is a bit complicated, but bear with me as I explain what this all means for raw milk safety. Since we now test each time we bottle milk, we run 13 coliform tests and 13 SPC tests per month. This is over 6 times more testing than the 2 tests that the state requires per month. If we take the 6x testing frequency factor, and multiply it by 2 or 4 because we set our “alarm levels” at only 25% to 50% of the state maximum, we come up with an increased safety factor of something between 12 and 24 times of what is actually required. Yes, we are taking this serious!
However, impressive as this is, this isn’t even the exciting part! The really exciting part of our food safety plan comes from the timing of the testing itself. We now have test results back before we sell. This is huge! This is exciting! As we have pointed out, all of the state’s testing ends up being "post-consumption" testing. The testing that we are doing at our lab is all "pre-consumption" testing. And that difference cannot even be measured. It is as I said before; it’s the difference between looking in your rear-view mirror vs. the windshield.
State certified, third party, off-farm laboratories will still be performing all of the state-required testing of our raw milk. But our own testing will provide additional food safety assurance. For now we will still get the state certified labs to run all of our extra, highly-technical pathogen tests. We are exploring a super high-tech pathogen detection system from 3M for use in our lab, but we are still researching our options on this one.
So, doesn’t our new food safety program prove the opening quotation wrong? Shouldn’t this new way of testing please everyone? Isn’t a test and hold protocol for raw milk something that all people everywhere can rally around? Isn’t this a rare exception to the aphorism that you can't please all of the people all of the time?
I wish sociology was as simple as microbiology. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this will please everyone, but I have reservations.
There are several groups that may be less than enthusiastic, but I’m concerned especially about the other raw milk farmers. Some will take offense as if we are trying to make them look bad because we do extra testing beyond the minimum requirements and now especially if we herald pre-consumption “test and hold” methods. But nothing is further from the truth!
I have thought about this for a long time. Dawn and I have prayed about it. To cause division between us and our fellow raw milk farmer friends is something that we never wish to do. We hate fighting of all kinds. We do not think of other raw milk farmers as competitors. In fact we link some of their farms directly on our website. We rather see them as friends and partners in the sustainable, grass-based agriculture raw milk revolution. We are on the same team. Our message is the same and our goal is one. We are all real-life, down-to-earth farm families that have a passion to grow and deliver the purest and the best to our customer-friends. So, what to do? Such a quandary!
But even though our family was mentally tossed a little, knowing some would misrepresent our move, we didn’t waver long. Our focus became crystal clear when we remembered that: "We really don’t need to please everyone." We just need to please you.
It is you who have given us your trust. It is you who are confident that our family will grow food for your family and children... food that is exactly like we feed our children. We are aware that feeding your family is an intimate and sacred trust. We are humbled by your unflinching confidence. It is with a renewed awareness of the dedication, trust, and even love that we share between us, that moves us forward with a stronger resolve and plan of action to provide you with the safest and the best.
These past few dark weeks are being triumphed by some enemies of raw milk and critics of sustainable, local, food systems as proof of our loss and their victory. But they are wrong. If the energies of love, dedication, levelheaded forgiveness and trust that we have felt flowing from you are any indication and if the forces of love, pain, responsibility and honesty that we feel rising up within us are any indication, the victory is not theirs.
There may indeed be "blood, toil, tears and sweat" ahead of us. "Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if [raw milk and sustainable food systems] last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour.'" *
Your Farmers ~ Edwin and Dawn Shank and Family
*last paragraph adapted from Winston Churchill speeches
by Edwin Shank, March 5, 2012, 6:10pm
Around 3000 years ago, there lived a wise man who spoke by inspiration of God. And this is what he said: "Let another man praise thee, and not thine own mouth; a stranger, and not thine own lips." ~ King Solomon, circa 1000 BC ~ Proverbs 27:2
This adage is impressively wise. Considering the source of Solomon’s wisdom and the humility with which he petitioned for it, we are not surprised. I meditate on these words a lot and cannot help but make some parallel observations. Like this, for example: Let another man defend thee and not thine own tongue.
The events of the past 6 weeks that have surrounded our farm and family have understandably given rise to an inclination to defend ourselves. But outweighing this inclination was the belief that a better way, even a more effective way, was to let you speak for us. You did... and a great job it was! Thank you!
But increasingly we come up against a dilemma. Here it is.
Is it morally right to passively watch truth, any kind of truth, being abused... even if it is just the truth about raw milk? Is it selfish to avoid a defense of truth because we are afraid that our defense of truth will be misconstrued by some as a dishonorable defense of ourselves? Is there a difference between selfishly defending self and honorably defending truth?
This conflict between our desire to avoid dishonorable defense and our moral obligation to communicate truth to The Family Cow families has been building steadily. What to do? Which is most right?
Last week this issue was forcefully brought to a head by the flood of calls from customers, friends, and family. They had been left confused by the claims and statistics of government agencies in relation to raw milk risks. Many had even been erroneously led to believe that new illnesses are still occurring from our farm! Several were under the false impression that there was actually a second outbreak.
We can’t say this strongly enough folks. At its best, this is incompetent journalism and at its worst it is intentional misinformation. Many of you will say, "Well, what did you expect?" And I guess that is part of our problem. Somehow we always want to believe the best of others, that they would not decimate false information and that really, down inside, they want to take the high road. We are getting our education. We are fast learners.
So today we crossed our Rubicon. We still are not going to defend ourselves. In fact, we aren’t even going to defend truth. Truth needs no defense. But we are going to communicate the truth. That is all the truth needs…to be told. No more watching truth get slaughtered on the altar of sensationalism. The news media and the health departments have had over a month to tell you the truth. Now we will.
In the following paragraphs, I highlight several common anti-raw-milk strategies. I have consistently observed these tactics over the last 10 years. Many of you are already wise to these methods, however, some of you are new to raw milk and are at a loss to identify and expose the twist in the information even when you strongly suspect it is there. It is for you and your families that I write.
Strategy #1. Only tell part of the truth. Freely quote government and medical data in order to appear valid but only reveal the parts that advance the agenda. This strategy is #1 because it works so well. It works because most of us are either too busy, too trusting or lackadaisical to do our own research and so will never notice.Here is how this tactic was used in our situation.
The number of ill from our farm was broadcasted with ever-increasing alarm. (And we aren’t minimizing the seriousness of even one ill person. Believe me!) But, wouldn’t you think that to give the story context it would have only been right, only fair, even a moral obligation to also reveal that the CDC estimates 2.4 million cases of campylobacter in USA every year! Here is an unedited excerpt directly from the CDC.
How common is Campylobacter?
Campylobacter is one of the most common causes of diarrheal illness in the United States. The vast majority of cases occur as isolated, sporadic events, not as part of recognized outbreaks. Active surveillance through FoodNet indicates that about 13 cases are diagnosed each year for each 100,000 persons in the population. Many more cases go undiagnosed or unreported, and campylobacteriosis is estimated to affect over 2.4 million persons every year, or 0.8% of the population.
So, let’s do the math.
- According to the CDC, the annual cases of campylobacteriosis in USA are: 2,400,000
- If we divide that by 50 states, it puts the annual cases per state at: 48,000
- When we divide that by 52, we find that the weekly number of cases per state is: 923
- So the number of cases per state for the two week period (Jan 16-31st) in question is: 1,846
- Therefore, the normal case count during the two weeks from a 4 state area is: 7,384
- If we subtract the 80 cases from our farm during that same period, we discover that during the same two week period in PA, MD, WV and NJ, the official estimated number of cases of campylobacteriosis from other source was: 7,304
Now that’s food for thought! What did the other 7,300 eat? Of course, everyone else was normal and just ate normal foods, so what made them sick wasn’t newsworthy. But even so, why wasn’t this official data revealed to at least put the story in context? I mean, aren’t professional, ethical, educated journalists supposed to be balanced? But I do understand. To put the story in context would have taken away a lot of the fear and drama. We can’t have that folks... we can’t have truth obscuring the fear!
Strategy #2. Intentionally leave the impression that this is a unique raw milk problem. In no case reveal that pasteurized milk does not eliminate risk. This strategy is amazingly successful for the same reason #1 works so well. We are too busy or too trusting to do our own homework. Here is how it is used in real life.
There was little attempt to give the story balance. Balanced data and all the facts are essential to parents responsible to make educated, informed, choices for their family. No parents should be conned into a decision based on fear, sensationalism and partial information and no health official or reporter should put them in that position. It seems the following outbreaks could have been referred to, at least in passing.
- 1,664 cases of Campylobacter jejune from Pasteurized Milk Outbreak– CA
- 49 Sickened and 14 Dead from Listeria Outbreak in Pasteurized Milk– MA
- 93 Confirmed ill from Muti-drug Resistant Salmonella found in Pasteurized Milk– PA, NJ
- 4 People Dead After Drinking Listeria-Laden Pasteurized Milk– MA
- Modern History of Illness from Pasteurized Milk… (one outbreak sickened more than 150,000)
Please understand. We do not present this data to try to persuade anyone away from pasteurized milk. Your choice is just as honorable as our choice. We simply present this information because we believe in informed choice. It is part of the information puzzle. If someone is hiding important pieces, how will you ever assemble the big picture? If these true outbreak stories are a shock to you and have disturbed a sheltered feeling that you cherished, I’m sorry to wake you up. But don’t blame me for the sleep! Blame those who are singing the lullaby. We present this to you because it’s unlikely you will get it from any other source. The point in mentioning other outbreaks is not to divert attention from us with "Oh look, they did it too, so we are not so bad." The point is that contamination can and does happen to all food classes but the focus is always on the How, Why and Solution to the contamination, not on the elimination of the food class. All we ask is that raw milk be given equal treatment.
Strategy #3. Compile raw milk illnesses from multiple years to get bigger, scarier numbers.
This tactic is the easiest to expose. It is such an obvious attempt and yet it is parroted in just about every article you read on raw milk. Once you know what to look for, you too will notice it everywhere. It is worded slightly different at times but it usually goes something like this excerpt taken from a news story last month. "According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 93 outbreaks due to consumption of raw milk or raw milk products were reported from 1998 through 2009 resulting in 1,837 illnesses, 195 hospitalizations and two deaths."
This data indeed sounds alarming! At least until you wake up. First, notice that 1998-2009 is an 11-year period. When do you ever hear of an 11-year period used to give statistics? Total traffic accident deaths over the last 11 years? Total ill from hamburgers over the last 11 years? Total asthma and allergy deaths during the last 11 years? Total food-borne illness deaths over the last 11 years? No. Never. Statistics invariably are given on a per-year basis for a good reason. It makes comparison easy.
So why would the media and the CDC make comparison hard in the case of raw milk? Well, for starters, to reveal that an average of 167 persons get ill from raw milk per year just doesn’t pack the same fear-factor punch as the big number. But even more important, they are confident (see strategy #1) that the average person is not awake enough to know that the, "CDC estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases."
You better go back and read that again! Notice, that this is each year, not an 11-year window like they use for raw milk. So, let’s politely yet firmly... (it’s always important to be firm with these people) ask them to play fair and honest and extend the 11-year statistical window for all foods just like they have chosen to do for raw milk. This is what we find:
- Every 11 years, 528,000,000 Americans are estimated to fall ill from food-borne illness. 1,837 of those are from raw milk.
- Every 11 years, 1,408,000 Americans are hospitalized from food-borne disease. 195 of those are from raw milk.
- Every 11 years, 33,000 Americans die from food-borne illness. 2 of those are from raw milk.
Folks, I’m not making this up. These are not my numbers. I am simply forcing the players to play fair with their numbers. As an awake American, you need to ask yourself, "What is going on? Why was I not told this before? Who is hiding the puzzle pieces and why? What is the motive to make raw milk illness look like such a huge food-safety threat when the statistics show it is not?"
Strategy #4. Carefully word headlines so new illnesses appear to occur long after the outbreak is over. This insidious strategy works marvelously to spread the hype and fear, because many are not aware that it is normal for epidemiologists to take several weeks to finish their paperwork. When health departments send urgent news releases and reporters create sensational headlines each time the paperwork on a case is finished, it is easy to make it look like new cases are still cropping up. This tactic is especially effective at damaging trust if the raw milk farmer has taken extraordinary steps to correct the problem and has informed his customers of the changes. Since the "new illness" reports appear after the public has been reassured the problem is fixed, the credibility and trust of the farmer and raw milk itself is destroyed much more than the first time around. It is a raw-milk-opponent's dream!
This particular strategy has been distressing to our family. Even though our raw milk sales have increased sharply and drop point sign-ups have roughly doubled as compared to our "pre-January" rates, (Praise the Lord and Thank you, Thank you, Everybody!) it still hurts to hear the doubt, distrust and worry in the voice of a loyal raw milk mom as she fearfully asks, "Are there still people getting ill from your milk? ...I read it in the news," or "Is it true... the news is saying that there has been another outbreak?" One mother said that she was sure it was a glitch the first time, but now she is not sure anymore. When we try so hard and care so deeply that our hearts at times feel pulled up by the roots only to see our credibility ripped away in a moment by this tactic... at its best, this is incompetent journalism and at its worst it is intentional misinformation.
We are getting our education. And like it or not, you are in school with us. Now, go educate your friends and family. One awake American shaking a friend out of slumber awakens another percent or so of Americans every year. One American at a time, the tipping point will be reached. This is power. This is hope. It is only a matter of time. With you at our side we need not defend ourselves!
Your farmers ~ Edwin and Dawn Shank and Family
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