House panel hears lively debate on safety of raw milk

Times Staff Writer

A congressional subcommittee heard repeated calls for a nationwide ban on raw milk sales during testimony last week on the controversial dairy product.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) chaired the House health and the environment subcommittee hearing at the UCLA Medical School as more than a dozen witnesses appeared to either condemn or praise unpasteurized milk.

The four-hour hearing was animated, and Waxman often admonished the audience to refrain from cheering pro-Alta-Dena Dairies speakers. Most of those in attendance wore makeshift badges that said, "Don't Ban Raw Milk."

The meeting coincided with a federal review on whether interstate shipments of raw milk should be prohibited because of the potential contamination threat from disease-causing bacteria, particularly Salmonella dublin.

Health officials believe raw milk is a vehicle for contamination because it forgoes pasteurization, or heat treatment, which eliminates harmful bacteria. Infants, the elderly and those whose immune systems are compromised by illness are particularly susceptible to S. dublin, a pervasive salmonella strain which enters the blood stream and is carried to vital organs.

In fact, two physicians testified that sickly patients with a history of raw milk consumption have died as a direct result of the onset of S. dublin.

City of Industry-based Alta-Dena Dairies, the nation's leading producer of raw certified milk, vigorously opposes either a ban on, or a warning label for, its unpasteurized products.

The firm's representatives also deny that any Alta-Dena products have been linked to illnesses. Furthermore, a company spokesman said that no groups are at risk from consuming the firm's raw milk.

Nevertheless, California health authorities have recalled Alta-Dena raw certified milk from sale on more than 20 occasions in the past decade because laboratory tests revealed the presence of the contaminant, S. dublin.

Despite the recalls, the demand for raw milk has increased in recent years. It is championed by those who believe that important nutritional components are diminished during pasteurization. There are an estimated 120,000 customers for Alta-Dena raw milk products in Southern California, and the firm's sales of these items top $20 million annually.

The company's safety record was challenged by the hearing's first panel, which was composed of people whose family members allegedly became ill from consumption of Alta-Dena's raw certified milk.

William Hesser of Pasadena testified that his wife, Patricia, consumed the company's raw milk for a number of years, including during her pregnancy in 1983. In March of that year, Patricia Hesser became ill with symptoms similar to those associated with S. dublin. In May, she gave birth to still-born twins. An autopsy revealed that the cause of death was S. dublin, he said.

Furthermore, milk removed from the family's home during this period was found to be contaminated with the same strain of salmonella bacteria, Hesser said. The family has filed suit against Alta-Dena for unspecified damages because of the incident. An attorney for the dairy claimed the company would be vindicated when the case reached court.

Another witness testified that his daughter consumed raw milk products during a school trip to Alta-Dena and later became ill with camphylobacter, a bacteria associated with raw milk. The 5-year-old girl recovered after four days of high fever and diarrhea.

Paul A. Telford then told of how his father began drinking Alta-Dena raw milk after being diagnosed as having cancer in July, 1982. The elderly Telford died later that month from meningitis. However, blood cultures at the time revealed the presence of S. dublin bacteria.

Continuing the attack was Dr. John Bolton, an American Academy of Pediatrics representative, who favors a ban on raw milk sales.

"What we are looking at here is a toxic waste problem. (Raw certified milk) is a product that can be contaminated with a toxic waste ( S. dublin ) or intermittently contaminated. Should this remain on the market?" Bolton said.

If the federal government elects to require a warning label on raw milk products rather than eliminate the products altogether, Bolton recommended phrasing that clearly states, "This product contains potentially lethal bacteria."

Bolton also displayed a warning sign currently required in any San Francisco County market that sells raw milk. The point-of-purchase warning states "Raw milk products . . . may contain organisms that cause human disease."

Harold Stueve, co-founder and operating partner of Alta-Dena, assailed his critics during testimony.

"Our milk is the cleanest in the world bar none . . . No one has ever gotten salmonella from our milk," he said. "This is all a conspiracy of organized crime. . . . Everything points to a conspiracy to eliminate Alta-Dena because (over the years) we have taken on the (state's Department of Health Services) and beat them in court."

The charge that Alta-Dena was being unjustly singled out for scrutiny by health officials was taken up by subcommittee member Rep. William E. Dannemayer (R-Fullerton).

"An abundance of regulatory agencies is the reason why we have this controversy," said Dannemeyer, a former attorney for Alta-Dena Dairies. "There are a few people in the state health department who were taught in medical school that all milk should be pasteurized. Now they want to be known as the people who eliminated certified raw milk.

"The health department is seeking to impose a standard for certified raw milk that, if imposed on other foods (that have been linked to salmonella outbreaks), would leave little to eat . . . (These) public health officials have some good questions coming on their motives."

Waxman felt that the perceived threat of raw milk could be distinguished from others foods that have been carriers of harmful bacteria.

"There are some high-risk groups (for S. dublin ), which even supporters of raw milk acknowledge should not use raw milk. However, Alta-Dena encourages consumption among those in the high-risk groups (infants, elderly and the infirm) with ads and promotional material," he said.

Waxman referred to an Alta-Dena flyer on raw milk that stated, "It (certified raw milk) is the safest, purest, most wholesome milk you can buy. Its easy digestibility makes it ideal formula-milk for babies . . . and for the same reason, a basic food for invalids."

"I don't know what recommendation the subcommittee will ultimately make (to the Food and Drug Administration)," he said. "Personally, I feel raw milk should be banned or at least that a warning label should be used to alert those high-risk individuals of the potential dangers, which could be life-threatening.

"However, labels may not be sufficient to balance the promotional material from Alta-Dena and in that case, then (raw milk) should be banned completely."

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