The owner of a South Carolina dairy says an investigation by two states and the federal government into whether raw milk from her cows made eight people sick is a case of jumping to conclusions.
"They didn't wait for all the tests to come in," said Carolyn Adkins, owner and operator of the Tucker Adkins Dairy in York, S.C. "In fact, they have milk that they're still testing right now."
The federal Food and Drug Administration, along with health and agriculture officials in North Carolina, said earlier this week that raw milk from the dairy caused three definite and five likely cases of an ailment called campylobacteriosis in North Carolina, with one of the sufferers being hospitalized. The bacteria Campylobacter is a common cause of diarrhea-like illness.
Since 1987, the FDA has required all milk intended for human consumption to be pasteurized if it's going to be shipped across state lines for sale to people. Pasteurization -- a process named after its pioneer, the French scientist Louis Pasteur -- involves heating milk to a specific temperature long enough to kill disease-causing bacteria. But unpasteurized milk -- generally called raw milk or real milk by advocates -- has vocal supporters, including groups that lobby for legislation making it easier to obtain.
"When you look at the actual number of illnesses in comparison to the number of raw milk drinkers out there, it's a good safety record," said Pete Kennedy, president of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, which estimates there are roughly 10 million drinkers of raw milk in the U.S.
"People who drink it think it's a healthier product and they like the taste better," he said. "This really comes down to a freedom of choice issue."
While the interstate sale of raw milk for humans is banned, many other regulations are left up to individual states. South Carolina is one of about 10 states with a largely hands-off approach, allowing raw milk to be sold in retail stores. Eleven states have outright bans on selling it, while the rest fall somewhere in between. North Carolina prohibits its sale for human consumption, but allows it for pets.
Even in South Carolina, though, health officials say "buyer beware" when it comes to unpasteurized milk.
"Raw milk has its risks, and the best way to protect yourself is to not drink it," said Adam Myrick, spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. "No matter how much regulation is done, raw milk is going to be risky."
The South Carolina health agency is testing milk from the Tucker Adkins Dairy for Campylobacter, but the results aren't in yet, Myrick said Monday. Adkins said she's been inspected by the state twice since mid-June, when officials say the illnesses began, and no problems have been found.
"I have passed with flying colors," Adkins said. But Myrick said those were standard inspections, which don't check for the presence of Campylobacter. Adkins counters that she paid for an independent lab test which didn't detect the illness-inducing bacteria in her cows' milk.
It's not clear whether anyone could face legal penalties in the affair. North Carolina State Health Director Jeff Engel said the people who got sick participated in a "milk club" that delivered the product in gallon-sized containers, which could run afoul of the ban on interstate sales. Any legal issues would be handled by the FDA, a North Carolina health department spokeswoman said. A call to the federal agency was not returned by early Monday afternoon.
For Adkins, her immediate concern is doing what she's done for nearly seven years at the dairy: getting milk from her cows.
"I'm sorry that anybody has gotten sick," she said. "But I'm inspected every month, and I have surpassed their standards."