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Charges possible in raw milk case

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Pedro Oliveira Jr.
September 29, 2009
— The Walworth County District Attorney's Office is evaluating whether to file charges against the owners of an Elkhorn farm shut down after more than two dozen people fell ill from consuming raw milk.

Assistant District Attorney Zeke Wiedenfeld on Monday met with three representatives from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.


"It's a crime to sell raw milk," Wiedenfeld said after the meeting. "Whether or not it gets charged is a determination that we have to make. I'll be speaking to them (officials) about making a charging decision and what is the proper outcome for a case like this."


Wiedenfeld said it will be a matter of weeks before he makes a charging decision.


According to agriculture officials, 35 people from Walworth, Waukesha and Racine counties have been diagnosed with campylobacter jejuni, a bacterial infection that causes diarrhea, cramping and vomiting.


All the victims said they had consumed raw milk, and 30 of them said they got it from Zinniker Farm, Elkhorn. Twenty-one victims were under the age of 18. One was hospitalized. Twenty-seven of the victims were in Walworth and Waukesha counties.


Tests run by state officials showed the campylobacter jejuni from 25 of the patients had a DNA fingerprint later matched with bacteria found in feces from cows at the Zinniker farm.


The farmers have been prohibited from selling raw milk, but they still are allowed to ship their products to a licensed dairy plant for pasteurization, which they already were doing along with providing raw milk.


Mark and Petra Zinniker, who own and run the farm, declined to comment after the meeting Monday.


The Zinnikers met with state officials Monday afternoon, and the Walworth County Judicial Center was flooded with people who obtained raw milk from the Zinnikers and wanted to participate in the meeting. They were not allowed in, so they stayed outside the District Attorney's Office for about two hours, waiting for Mark and Petra Zinniker to come out.


Some people said they hadn't been buying raw milk because they obtained it through a cow-share program, in which individuals pay farmers to board their animals. Under the program, one or more individuals own the animals but have no ownership of the farm.


They said the arrangement should make it legal for them to have raw milk because Wisconsin statutes allow farmers and their families to consume their own raw milk—they just can't sell it.


Bill Neu, 46, of Lyons Township was one of them. He has been part of the Zinniker cow-share program since 2001 and said he likes the quality of the milk and trusts the product. Nobody in his family, including his five children, got sick.


Neu said he is a proponent of organic foods and won't buy milk at a grocery store.


"Why can't I buy raw milk directly from the farmer?" Neu said. "I want the farm to have the right to sell organic, whole milk."


Wiedenfeld said selling raw milk is illegal in Wisconsin, even under a cow-share program.


DATCP spokeswoman Donna Gilson said some consumers are misinformed about the law and think they have found a loophole that would allow them to obtain raw milk. But to get raw milk from a farm, Wisconsin statutes require individuals to be bona fide owners with a "real financial stake on the farm," she said.


"(In a cow-share program) you're not paying to feed the cow, you're not paying for the vets," she added. "You have to have true cow ownership."


Choice versus protection


For Sally Sallon-Morell, the Zinniker Farm situation is a matter of public choice.


Sallon-Morell is the president of Washington, D.C.,-based Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit she said is dedicated to promoting access to clean, raw milk in the United States.


"Our big concern is when people get sick—and the minute they (government officials) find out one of those persons had raw milk—they stop looking for anything else," Sallon-Morell said.


"They didn't test the water, they didn't test anything else. We have no idea whether non-raw milk drinkers got sick."


The Weston A. Price Foundation last week denounced the action by agriculture officials. Sallon-Morell said the investigation was poorly conducted and yielded no substantial proof raw milk caused people to fall ill.


"They found the same organism in the manure of some of the cows; they didn't find the pathogen in the milk," she said. "They have a correlation. But correlation is not the same as causation."


Gilson said the ruling is a matter of public protection.


"The reason for the law is to protect public health, and we'll take administrative or court actions to meet that goal as we see fit," she said.


Why is selling raw milk illegal?


Milk pasteurization became standard after diseases such as scarlet fever, dysentery and tuberculosis were directly linked to the consumption of raw milk, said Barbara Ingham, a food safety extension specialist who teaches food sciences at UW-Madison.


"The big deal is that raw milk is a known source of pathogens, or harmful microorganisms," Ingham said. "We're constantly re-looking and reevaluating the pasteurization process to make sure it's still effective."


So far, pasteurization is an essential and critical step to ensure milk safety, Ingham said.


Most of the supporters of raw milk say it's a more natural and a more organic way to consume the product.


Ingham said research has shown most of those assumptions are false. She said the human body breaks down important nutrients from foods and rebuilds them in a way appropriate for absorption. Whether pasteurized or raw, the milk contains about the same amount of nutrients and important components.


In some ways, pasteurized milk tends to be healthier, she said, because the addition of vitamin D, which makes the calcium in the milk more available for the body's absorption.


The one difference is vitamin C.


"You're going to lose some vitamin C because it is extremely sensitive to heat," Ingham said. "But we don't look at milk as a source of vitamin C. We look at orange juice or strawberries."



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