In the days and weeks of the great E. coli hunt of 2006, it was hard to find farmers more befuddled than the spinach farmers of central California. Their crop had sickened hundreds of people across the country--three were dead--and now they had come out of the fields to stand in the open, where no farmer wants to stand. They looked like victims of a hit and run. How the Escherichia coli bacteria known as O157:H7 had managed to strike their perfect rows of spinach they couldn’t begin to explain. Whether by water or wind or compost or wild swine, the vector was as much a mystery to them as it was to the scores of state and federal investigators now ransacking their fields. The farmers would not rest until they personally had tracked down the pathogen’s source and wiped it clean from the Salinas Valley.
Then one evening in late September, the mass dumping of spinach gave way to a new threat hiding out in the refrigerator, and a farmer with a different face showed up on TV. He hadn’t shaved in a week and his eyes had the look of a man with two hands squeezed around his throat. His name was Mark McAfee, and he ran a dairy and grew almonds 100 miles to the south in the San Joaquin Valley. The state of California had just linked five distinct cases of E. coli poisoning to his milk--raw organic milk--and imposed a quarantine and recall. All of the victims were children. A 7-year-old boy from Riverside County and a 10-year-old girl from San Bernardino County were fighting for their lives inside the same intensive-care unit at Loma Linda University Medical Center. This sub strain of O157:H7 was intricately different from the sub strain carried by the spinach. Indeed, this incarnation of E. coli had never been seen in the U.S.
Yet rather than dump the milk, the hard-core among McAfee’s 15,000 customers in California, who regarded the recall as nothing more than a government conspiracy to deny them “living food,” raced for the last bottles on the health-food market shelves. McAfee--the nation’s biggest producer of raw milk, milk not pasteurized or homogenized, milk straight from the cow’s udder to a child’s mouth with only a cotton sock filter in between--did not discourage them. Before he could bring himself to believe that his cows had sickened anyone, the state would have to find the fingerprints of the O157:H7 subtype in his milk or at his dairy, just as investigators had done with the spinach. And that hadn’t happened, at least not yet.
“I told the state, ‘Have at it. Take your probes and poke into every crevice and crack on these 400 acres.’ So 16 state inspectors in their little plastic spacesuits came here and took hundreds of samples. I lifted my kilt for full inspection and they did every test in the book. They tested the milk, the drains, the bottling machines, the milkers, the rear ends of cows, the fresh manure in the pasture, the fresh manure off the udders. Not a pathogen anywhere. No O157:H7. No salmonella. No listeria. So why am I still shut down?” He glared. “Because they’re afraid of the revolution.”
McAfee watched himself on the news that night. He wondered if people saw the same thing he saw. Isn’t that Rodger McAfee’s son? Sounds just like the old man. Commie father. Commie son. A thousand revolutions left undone. Isn’t that the same land Rodger used to bail Angela Davis out of jail? Wasn’t his youngest son killed because of all his malarkey? As hard as Mark McAfee had tried to suppress the traits of his father, it was plain to see the patrimony. In some ways, that bit of Rodger was the best part of his oldest son. How else could he explain, after all, that he, too, had become a heretic on the land?
Mark McAfee had come to believe, like the physicians of the first half of the 20th century believed, that raw milk is powerful medicine. Through the chemistry of what is known in the naturopathic movement as probiotics, McAfee had seen his milk cure asthma in kids and irritable bowels in adults. For thousands of years, man and cow had shared the same space. The farther we as a society had moved away from our cows and our soil, science was showing, the more sick we had become. Without our barns and our pastures, we didn’t have the inoculation of the farm to help us fight off the bad bugs. Raw fresh milk, in all its living, breathing culture, was the blood of the farm sent straight to the city. All those steroid inhalers, all those little purple pills to treat the old-fashioned heartburn that the pharmaceutical industry had turned into billion-dollar diseases with the acronyms of war--I.B.S., G.E.R.D.--were rubbish as far as Mark McAfee was concerned. They were just one glass of fresh raw milk removed from the trash heap.
“The industrialized form of agriculture is killing us,” he explained. “We’re chronically ill, we’re obese, we’re sick and immune-depressed. The giants of the marketplace have processed our food to death to extend shelf life and expand distribution. The raw milk revolution grows right out of this disorder. People are saying, ‘We don’t want factory farm foods. We don’t want foods that are sterilized or pasteurized or irradiated. We want real, whole, biodiverse, enzyme-rich foods from natural sources.’ We’re talking about a massive paradigm shift. It’s the difference between killing everything to make it well versus growing good things to counter the bad. It’s antibiotic versus probiotic. It’s nuking Mother Nature versus trusting Mother Nature.”
Microbes weren’t some foreign invaders. They existed by the billions in each speck of fertile soil on his pasture. There were good bacteria and bad bacteria, and it was pure hubris to think we could get rid of any one of them, at least for very long. Like us, they had been infused with the spirit of Manifest Destiny, only they were infinitely more equipped to go places we could never think of going. To the ocean vents that shot 480-degree water from the earth’s core, for one. They gave us life and they gave us disease and sometimes even death. Of the few hundred basic strains of E. coli, only a handful actually made us sick. The rest colonized our gut and allowed us to digest all that factory food. The sheer mass of bacteria rivaled the mass of all other living forms put together. They ran the earth. We were their guests. The trick wasn’t to kill the bad ones by sterilizing the farm in the manner sought by the spinach police. The trick was to build up a system, a foundation, where the good bacteria held the malevolent bacteria in check.
The entire operation at McAfee’s Organic Pastures Dairy, a dozen miles west of Fresno, was devoted to this notion. To come upon it from the path of Tulare County, you had to first go through the land of mega-milking plants with their giant corrugated roofs and concrete pens, where thousands of cows, stall by stall, lay confined in their own waste. You had to hold your nose as you passed by dairies with swarming flies and endless troughs of corn and lagoons brimming with shit water. To come out of that and onto McAfee’s dairy was to be struck dumb by the sight of cows--not cattle--grazing a green expanse of California pasture. What stared back at you here were 250 Holsteins and Jerseys feeding straight from the land, dropping their excrement into a mix of Sweet Clover, Bermuda and Johnson grass--cow pies ground into fertilizer by the millstone of microbes. Because the cows never left the pasture, McAfee had built a one-of-a-kind mobile milking barn that actually traveled to them. “No one has ever heard of ‘free-range cows,’ ” he said with a grin. “But there they are. Those happy cows on TV--that’s a million-dollar picture that the California dairy industry dreamed up with computer animation. It’s a brilliant ad, but the whole thing is bullshit. Even cows at big organic dairies live in confined pens and maybe are let out to roam now and then. But these cows--they’ve all got a name--are truly happy cows.”
In the same way that the factory farm had bred the pig to fit the precise contours of a slaughterhouse saw, so too had we pushed the cow to evolve in a way that defied its own 9,000 years of history with man. Cows ate grass, not grain, and yet because we had turned the Midwest into a subsidized wasteland of corn, it was corn that became the mainstay of the cow’s diet. All that starch didn’t go down easily. It had so acidified the cow’s rumen that the animal was burning up from the inside. In our dogged pursuit to squeeze out ever more from each unit of production (the average cow was pumping five gallons a session, 730 sessions a year) we were milking the animal until it dropped. Occasional doses of antibiotics notwithstanding, cows were becoming sick with pneumonia and mastitis and dying at 4 and 5 years of age--half the life they lived in the 1960s. The stress meant more and more cows were having a hard time getting pregnant a second time. So frustrated dairy farmers were using the genetically engineered hormone BST to take full advantage of their single lactations. They were milking some cows for 400 days straight and then culling them out for hamburger meat.
And all that high-energy grain had done something else: It had given rise to a near indestructible and toxic form of E. coli. In the past, the slight acid in a cow’s lower tract was enough to kill the bacteria. But after enduring continuous acid baths in the cow’s rumen from so much corn, the bacteria had evolved into a strain that resisted acid. This coat of armor allowed O157:H7 to survive the journey from a cow’s four stomachs to its lower tract and out its rear end into the world of humans. Likewise, the wear and tear from digesting the grain meant that some conventional milk headed to the creamery was tainted with pus from cows suffering mastitis. Yet it hardly mattered to the dairy industry because all that bacteria would be cooked dead by the machines of pasteurization.
At Organic Pastures Dairy, the cows were given no BST and no antibiotics and lived an average of eight years, producing a steady, if unspectacular, two gallons each milking. Because McAfee had almost completely eliminated corn from the feed, choosing instead to supplement the pasture with homegrown organic alfalfa, he was confident that he had shut off the main valve of O157:H7. In all the years of testing his manure and milk, he had never come across the pathogen. And yet he was always aware that it might be lurking in some corner somewhere. Indeed, his whole theory of living systems was predicated on the possibility that the slightest shift in wind or sun or food or water might bring the bacteria his way. In fact, he had just come out of one of the hottest summers on record in the San Joaquin Valley, a summer in which tens of thousands of dairy cows had died due to heat stress and sickness.
What if the immune system of his own herd had been weakened just enough that 0157:H7 had been given a point of entry? What if those children had drunk a batch of milk produced in the 105-degree heat of late August that was tainted? Yes, the milk sampled by the state never tested positive for O157:H7. But McAfee knew something about his milk that made him wonder. It was so mercurial, so alive, that it could change faces right inside the bottle. As a test, he had once infected his milk with a pathogen and then measured its presence over the next several days. Incredibly, the toxin became less and less prevalent before vanishing altogether. What if that late August milk, in an act of dissembling, had erased its own O157:H7 fingerprint? What if the pathogen was there when the children drank the milk on Day 8 but was gone on Day 15 when the state came to test it?
McAfee, who had been one of the county’s top paramedics before he returned to his father’s land and opened the dairy six years earlier, needed to know for himself. So a few days later, on the morning of Sept. 25, he got into his white Volvo S80 caked with mud and manure and headed to Loma Linda, where the toxin produced by O157:H7 had marched out of the stomachs of two Southern California children and into their kidneys. A dialysis machine was keeping each one alive.
Tony and Mary Martin didn’t come to raw milk in the usual fashion. They didn’t drink it as kids on the farm nor did they have a child with asthma or autism. They weren’t followers of naturopathic guru Dr. Mercola or Jordan Rubin’s “Back to the Bible” diet or Sally Fallon’s “Weston A. Price” philosophy of unadulterated animal fats. Tony taught government at Corona High and Mary was one of the school’s guidance counselors. They had tried for years to have a child of their own, and when a pregnant student surprised them one day with an offer to adopt her child, they attended the birth and promised to raise the boy with every advantage. That included a strict diet of only the healthiest foods. “We know what the food supply in America is like,” Tony said. “We did our best to stay away from all that stuff and eat as much organic foods as we could.”
Whenever Chris Martin drank pasteurized milk, he got the sniffles. Every medical website his mother turned to declared the same thing: Milk didn’t produce mucus and didn’t cause colds. It was all an old wives’ tale. Not until she stumbled upon the online world of naturopathic healing did she find a theory that explained Chris’ reaction to milk and offered up a remedy. The bacteria killed by pasteurization released histamines that caused some drinkers to suffer an allergic response. Likewise, pasteurization destroyed the all-important enzyme lactase that helped humans digest the sugars in milk. Thus lactose-intolerant groups, which included a majority of Asians, blacks and Latinos, could drink raw milk without a hitch.
As she kept searching, she came upon the website for Organic Pastures Dairy, with its blue skies and green pastures and cows named Farah and Tasha: “Dairy Foods As Nature Intended . . . The Barn that Mooooves . . . Join the Raw-volution!”
The dairy was “family owned and operated and inspired” and there was a portrait in the pasture of McAfee, his wife, Blaine, and their two grown children, Aaron and Kaleigh. There were testimonials from customers whose lives had been changed by drinking the dairy’s raw milk and raw colostrum and eating its raw butter and raw cheese. Eczema was gone. Asthma was gone. A pain in the knee that had stolen sleep for years was gone. “Finally, I’m Motrin-free!” What especially caught Mary Martin’s eye were the bacterial counts that the dairy had put up on the website for all to see. Every batch of milk was tested. And every batch, it seemed, measured far below the 15,000 per/ml standard for bacteria counts. This is the mark for raw milk set by the state of California--a far more stringent standard, by the way, than the one set for milk destined for pasteurization.
“Top to bottom it was impressive,” Mary said. “It was eight bucks a half gallon, but we had gotten used to spending a lot for natural foods.”
There was one caveat: the government warning label on each container stating that raw milk posed a risk of bacterial illness, especially to children and the elderly.
But Mark McAfee had a reasonable answer for that. Some people got sick from raw milk because they had been so starved of living food that they lacked the flora in their guts to handle it. Raw milk was the perfect source for “seeding and feeding” beneficial bacteria such as Lactobacillus acidophilus. A first-time drinker might come down with a bout of diarrhea but not to worry. “After all,” McAfee wrote on the website, “the intestine has never seen such an incredible introduction of new and diverse beneficial bacteria and does not have any idea what to do.” McAfee’s pitch had the sound of an elixir barker. But more and more scientific research, especially out of Europe, was pointing to healthy gut flora as a key to a healthy immune system. As for the presence of pathogens in his milk, it was possible but “highly unlikely,” McAfee wrote. If this were to happen, “they die off and do not grow” in our milk.
Seven-year-old Chris had been drinking McAfee’s milk for only a few weeks when his parents came home from the Sprouts health food store in Temecula with a new container, dated Sept. 10. It was Labor Day weekend, and he drank a glass on Saturday and two more on Sunday and Monday. He was feeling fine and ate a spinach salad and then headed to tae kwon do with his father. After class, he felt exhausted and went straight to the couch with a fever. The next morning, the fever was gone but he couldn’t control his bowels. He went to the toilet 19 times that day. His stools were runny and full of blood, and he began to vomit. His parents rushed him to Kaiser Hospital in Riverside and a sample of his stool was taken. One of the physicians stated that until the results came back, the boy was not to be given antibiotics. In the case of O157:H7, they learned later, antibiotics often caused a mass kill of the bacteria and a mass release of a toxin known as Shiga, which could shut down a child’s renal system.
It would be five days before the sample came back showing the Shiga toxin. In the meantime, Chris had been transferred to Kaiser in Fontana where doctors--believing he had colitis and not factoring in the possibility of O157:H7--had ordered a dose of two antibiotics. “His blood was normal, and then they hung those two antibiotics from the line and all of a sudden his blood work exploded,” his father said. “The Shiga toxin was accumulating in the kidneys. His red blood cells were popping like balloons.”
Chris was transferred to Kaiser in L.A. with a condition known as hemolytic uremic syndrome. Doctors said he might need a kidney transplant. Kaiser didn’t have the capacity to do kidney dialysis, so Tony demanded that his son be sent to Loma Linda. “I am an absolute maniac at this point. There is not a doctor or nurse on that floor who doesn’t know me,” he said. “I am watching my son dying, and this whole bureaucracy is moving in slow motion.”
It would take another several hours for Kaiser to approve the paperwork to airlift the boy to Loma Linda. Doctors there began dialysis immediately, but a pool of fluid already had built up near his lungs. “All that toxin in his system and his little chest is pounding,” Tony said. “I can literally see it rise and fall, 180 beats a minute. The doctors said he was on the verge of congestive heart failure. ‘We need to take over for him now,’ they told us. So they intubated him and put him on a respirator. For days and days, the world just stopped. There was nothing but me and my son and my wife and that room.”
Somehow, the news of the tainted spinach filtered in. Mary Martin surmised that the O157:H7 had come from the spinach salad they had picked up at Sprouts and served to Chris a day before he got sick. She called the health food store and told the owners what had happened and asked that the greens be removed from the bins. A few days later, in the waiting room of the intensive-care unit, she overheard a mother talking about her own nightmare. Her 10-year-old daughter, Lauren Herzog, was stricken with E. coli poisoning: Antibiotics were given; HUS ensued. The two mothers compared notes. The girl hadn’t eaten spinach but had consumed a glass of raw milk from a dairy near Fresno. Organic Pastures Dairy.
It now seemed more than likely that it was the raw milk that had sickened Chris. Yet there was a hole in the epidemiology. His stool sample, for whatever reason, didn’t show O157:H7, much less the unique sub strain that had stricken Lauren Herzog. While it was highly probable that both children suffered from the same milk-borne pathogen, the uncertainty caused the state not to test Chris’ milk. And a test of Lauren’s raw milk failed to turn up the O157:H7 that appeared in her stools. “We were pretty sure it was the milk, but we weren’t positive,” Mary Martin said. “Then we found out that two more kids in San Diego had become ill after drinking the same batch of raw milk.”
As the raw milk recall began to grab its own headlines, Mark McAfee showed up unannounced at the Loma Linda hospital. A broad-shouldered man who stands over 6 feet tall, he was wearing jeans and brown leather Clarks. He made a beeline to Mary Martin and introduced himself. He seemed kind and genuinely concerned. Still, she couldn’t help but think he was there on a mission to clear his milk. He had a dozen questions. How long had Chris been drinking the milk? Had he showed any signs of trouble before? How much of the new milk did he consume before he got sick? What was the time lag? Before she could give him a full answer, her husband walked up. He had slept 90 minutes a night for 17 straight days.
“Do you know what it’s like?” he said, standing eye to eye with McAfee. “My son drank a glass of milk and now he’s fighting to live.”
McAfee said he did. When his 19-year-old daughter was a child, she came down with a bacterial infection unrelated to raw milk that nearly took her life.
“You don’t have a damn clue what we’ve been through,” Tony Martin replied. “My son is on a breathing machine, and I can’t even communicate with him.”
McAfee wanted to tell him about all the children whose lives had been changed for the better because of his milk, but he held back.
“I hope you have insurance,” Martin said. “Because I can guarantee this. If it turns out that your milk did this to my son, I’m coming after you. I’m going to own your dairy.”
It was late August, a month before the state’s recall, and Mark McAfee stood on the back of a flatbed trailer in the middle of an almond grove, listening to a bagpipe player blowing out the strains of “Amazing Grace.” Only a scattering of people had come to pay their last respects to Rodger McAfee, and not one of them was a local farmer. It was a gathering that seemed to say a lot about the elder McAfee and his life. There were three of his five wives--one white, one black, one Latino. There was Andrew McAfee, the youngest of his four surviving sons, who had come from North Carolina, where he sat as the principal French horn for the symphony in Raleigh. There was the Mexican boy Rodger had adopted and taught how to fly and play chess and grow almonds the organic way on a farm he had bequeathed to his Our Land Self Help Movement. There were the urban farmers who had just lost their 10 acres in South Los Angeles, despite the protests of actress Daryl Hannah, and were now farming a 20-acre plot in Fresno that Rodger had given them. And there was Richard Chavez, one of Cesar’s brothers, and Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers union. “When Rodger first came along, it was so early in the game that our own Latino people weren’t sure about us,” Huerta said. “No Chicanos from L.A. dared join us. But Rodger gave us his time and his money. He stood alone.”
That his two middle sons, once part of the McAfee traveling horn band and the McAfee Balkan dance troupe, were among those missing also seemed to say a lot about the man. Eric and Adam were multimillionaire venture capitalists in the Bay Area who had never quite forgiven their father for putting his causes first. “I think if they were here, they’d tell you that their incredible success has something to do with the DNA they got from my father,” Mark said. “But whereas me and Andrew took the good with the bad, my two other brothers just saw the demons.”
Their eulogies didn’t attempt to capture his life. How a 15-year-old Rodger, the son of two teachers from a long line of Presbyterian missionaries, dropped out of school and traveled to Israel to live on a kibbutz. For the rest of his life, he tried to graft the communal ideal of Beit Hashita onto the soil of the San Joaquin Valley. “He was a visionary with all these ideas and all this energy,” said his first wife, Darlene, the mother of five of his six sons. “But his energy could never stay put in one place.”
He took them to Cuba, Mexico and communist Algeria, sinking their boat in the Adriatic Sea. Back home, he tried to be a simple dairy farmer, but it only reminded him of how much he missed Beit Hashita. In the summer of 1969, he decided to return there with his family. They worked their way from one kibbutz to the other, but something wasn’t right. Israel had changed. The soul of the kibbutz had changed. The wars with the Arabs, he said, had turned his old lefty friends into oppressors of the Palestinians. Without telling his wife, he sneaked off with Mark and traveled to Cyprus to meet with Syrian intelligence officers. When he returned to northern Israel several days later, his kibbutz hat was merely a cover. “He drove to every military outpost that Israel had in the desert. He memorized how many tanks, how many personnel, how many checkpoints and then reported everything back to the Syrians,” Darlene recalled. “It broke my heart. The kibbutz. He had lost his boyhood dream.”
He joined the picket lines protesting the Vietnam War, carrying a sign taped to a Louisville slugger. On a trip to San Francisco, he met with supporters of Angela Davis, the Black Panther sympathizer and Communist, and agreed to put up his family’s 400 acres as collateral to bail her out of jail. He showed up the next day on national TV with cow dung on his boots. “When ‘Good Morning America’ and the others started calling, I pleaded with him. ‘Rodger, just don’t tell them you’re a Communist,’ ” Darlene said. “But he went right on TV and told everyone, ‘I did it for my sister. For my fellow Communist.’ ”
Overnight, the McAfees became pariahs in the farm belt. Mark, a sixth grader, was milking cows early one morning when he heard gunshots hit a barn. Nine of their cows were poisoned with strychnine. He and his brothers were escorted off school grounds to the shouts of “Goodbye Commies.” As they drove to town one evening, a bale of hay fell off a farm vehicle and landed in the road. The brakes locked up, and the car flipped over. David, the youngest horn player, the star Balkan dancer, not a scratch on his face, was dead. The mechanic told Rodger that the brakes had been tampered with. He went on believing the rest of his life that some redneck dairyman had found a way to get even with him.
He spent his last 20 years entrenched in a fight with the federal government over water wells it had dug on his ranch in Merced County--wells that turned up dry. Then one afternoon in late August, not far from the spot where David had died, he was killed in a head-on collision. A drunken Mexican farmworker, of all people, had run a stop sign.
His son Mike flew a Cessna 152 over the almond orchard and scattered his ashes. He was now part of the soil, Mark said, part of the microbes, organic at that. “I spent a lot of years running from him, but look where I ended up, a maverick just like him, trying to subvert the way we produce our food and milk. In my own way, I’m more radical than he was. I’m more dangerous than he was. Because I know what I’m trying to change.”
McAfee didn’t know it then but working its way through his mobile milking barn and into his 1,200-gallon stainless steel tank was a batch of raw milk that was about to change everything.
“ALERT: RAW MILK NEEDS YOU NOW. Our access to raw milk is at stake!”
It had been eight days since officials with the California Department of Food and Agriculture had pulled his products from 36 Whole Foods markets and scores of smaller stores around the state. What concerned Mark McAfee wasn’t so much the $12,000 in sales he was losing each day but what the recall was doing to his dairy’s good name. If state health officials had conclusive evidence tying his milk to the five sick children, they weren’t sharing it with him or the public. Frustrated, he papered the Internet in late September with an urgent call beseeching raw milk lovers to come to a rally at his dairy.
On the eve of the protest, he had never been more worked up. “This is a war between me and the state. What they’re attempting to do, bottom line, is an assassination on our brand. They’re trying to attack us as bioterrorists and baby killers.” He was threatening a $100-million lawsuit--not just to clear his company’s name but to clear the honor of raw milk itself. The fact that he even had to call it “raw milk,” he said, was a concession to slander. It was milk the way nature intended us to drink cow’s milk. It didn’t need the word “raw” in front of it. The other milk was the milk that needed an adjective: “pasteurized milk.”
The rally drew 100 or so supporters, some from as far away as Seattle. McAfee, for the most part, took the edge off his words. He had learned just hours before that the state quarantine had been officially lifted because tests showed his operation was clean, though it would take another week for his milk to hit the shelves. “We’re getting more orders than ever from all over the state,” he said. “The government only succeeded in pissing the people off.”
Quietly, though, the state was building an even bigger case to shut down the dairy once more. Early Halloween morning, as his cows were herded in the dark to the mobile barn for their 5 a.m. milking, a team of state investigators and veterinarians descended in their moon suits. They set up a lab--four large Igloos, boxes of latex surgical gloves and Ziploc bags--and went right to work. As each milked cow made its way down a chute and back into the pasture, she was stopped by a state investigator with his right arm gloved finger to shoulder. He reached a full 2 feet into the animal’s rectum and pulled out a fistful of the freshest manure. “You sure this is enough?” he asked the vet. “Because if it isn’t, I have some more here for you.”
McAfee stood on the side with an ironic smile. “They’re frustrated like crazy, hunting for that strain,” he said. “What they don’t realize is that if it was here, it showed up for just a moment in late summer and was gone. Poof.”
It took four hours to extract the evidence from 225 milking cows. The results of this new test wouldn’t be complete for another several weeks. In the meantime, state officials accused McAfee of giving a false impression about the dairy’s sanitation record on his website. In some weeks, state tests showed, Organic Pastures’ raw milk exceeded the standard bacteria counts by fifteenfold. The high counts, McAfee countered, were rare--only 36 times in a four-year period--and the only downside to such counts was the milk might sour a little early. As winter approached, he was still waiting for the state to produce a single test showing that the bacteria in his bottle were anything but beneficial.
Even without that smoking gun, the state believed it had a case. The two 8-year-olds in San Diego County were showing an identical pattern of O157:H7, the same unique sub strain that had struck Lauren Herzog and a Nevada City boy named Adam Chaffee. Like the others, Chaffee had only recently begun to drink raw milk. He suffered a few days of diarrhea and vomiting, was never given antibiotics and recovered quickly--the same as the two San Diego children. All the children have stopped drinking raw milk, though some of their parents remain believers in its healing powers.
“There’s a chance, especially in children new to raw milk, that they can drink a batch and get sick,” McAfee conceded. “And the next-door neighbor, a raw milk drinker from way back, can drink the same milk with no problem. In fact, this is what happened in San Diego. You talk about risk, but there’s not a food we eat that doesn’t carry some risk. Spinach. Carrots. Tomatoes. But I’ll bet on raw milk every time. That tiny infinitesimal risk is outweighed by a ton of benefits.”
Tony Martin now wonders about the calculations of risk. He watched Lauren Herzog leave Loma Linda Hospital in early October after four weeks in intensive care. It would take another month, eight weeks in all, for his son, arms and legs as thin as sprinkler pipes, to follow her out the door. He faced an uncertain future. One third of children with HUS continue to have kidney problems later in life. “Five kids. The same batch of milk. The same symptoms. Four of them with an identical pattern of O157:H7,” he said. “You ask if it’s an open-and-shut case? Let me put it to you this way. You could put a gun to my head and say, ‘If you don’t give your son a glass of raw milk every day, you’re a dead man,’ I’d be a dead man.”
A few days before Thanksgiving, standing over the bottling line, McAfee could only marvel at the industrial flow. He was selling more raw milk than ever before.