If you're in the food-production business, the worst thing that can happen to you is that customers become ill and regulators decide you may be at fault.
Inspectors swoop in, shut your business, force a recall of your products, and inspect every crevice of your operations looking for evidence of contamination.
RAW MILK. That is what happened recently to Organic Pastures Dairy Co., a small farm in Fresno, Calif., that is the state's largest producer of raw milk, after four children who drank the milk or ate milk products became ill, all of whom tested positive for E.coli. (Raw milk is milk that isn't pasteurized or homogenized. Advocates maintain the milk has a variety of health benefits, including strengthening the immune system and being more easily digested by individuals with lactose intolerance.)
The 300-cow dairy was founded six years ago by Mark McAfee and his wife, Blaine. Their son, Aaron, is the operations manager and daughter, Kaleigh, is a marketing assistant. Previously, the McAfees had produced organic vegetables from the farm.
So far, California's Food and Agriculture Dept. hasn't found a "smoking gun" in the form of E.coli in the farm's milk products that would incriminate it in the children's illness. "They did hundreds and hundreds of tests," Mark says. "They even tested the manure of our cows. They found zero pathogens."
The question now seems to be how far the state will go before giving the farm a clean bill of health.
CUTTING A DEAL. McAfee says that on Sept. 22, a day after issuing "a statewide recall and quarantine order" affecting Organic Pastures' products, state officials promised him that if he cooperated and refrained from speaking with the media or triggering an appeals process while further tests were conducted, the order would be lifted and he would be back in business "in a few days."
A few days have come and gone, and on Sept. 27 state officials showed up seeking more evidence and wanting to do more tests. That convinced McAfee to end his silence and go on the offensive. "We had a contract with the state of California," he says, though apparently nothing was conveyed in writing. "They're changing the target on us. We are going to defend the right of citizens to access this life-giving milk." He is threatening a $100 million lawsuit against the state for harming his brand and reputation.
A spokesperson for the California Food and Agriculture Dept. says there was no specific agreement on when Organic Pastures might reopen. "We have stated all along that it is quarantined until further notice," says the spokesperson. The state right now is seeking "two consecutive clean samples of his product." It takes approximately five days to complete each test, and "we are in the midst of that process now."
VAGUE EVIDENCE. The spokerperson adds that because two of the four children who became sick "had to go on kidney dialysis," the department is being especially cautious, even though the only evidence pointing to Organic Pastures is "epidemiological"—meaning that all four children consumed Organic Pastures' milk products.
Organic Pastures and the state are also in disagreement about another possible cause of the children's illness: fresh spinach, which has made nearly 200 people ill in the last several weeks around the country. The state spokesperson said that as far as he knew, there wasn't a connection, since "lab samples from one of the children shows a different strain [of E.coli] than the one found in the spinach outbreak," and only two of the four children were known to have consumed spinach.
Yet Mark McAfee isn't so sure. He says he met with families of two of the children who got sick and that both of the children had consumed fresh spinach. "Who's to say it's not some other E.coli" from the spinach that sickened the children, he wonders.
Mark McAfee says the state is using the vague evidence of "epidemiologic data" to keep him shut down and, in the process, tarnish his brand and endanger the viability of his entire business.
RISKY PRODUCT. Raw milk has long been a touchy subject among state and federal regulators. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on its Web site states that federal and state agencies "have documented a long history of the risks to human health associated with the consumption of raw milk." Most states outlaw its sale in stores, only allowing it to be sold direct from farms. California apparently has one of the nation's most liberal policies in allowing sale of raw milk in stores; according to McAfee, 100,000 California residents each week drink raw milk.
When I asked McAfee if he was simply in a business with an unacceptable risk level, he responded, "There isn't risk from the product. The risk is political. This is a war against raw milk…They're trying to destroy us."
He points out that farms without the right farming processes shouldn't be trusted to produce acceptable raw milk, but he says he has taken exceptional precautions, including feeding his cows only grass and implementing special clean-milking procedures that guard against contamination.
ADVOCACY. Unfortunately, if you're going to be in a business that the regulators have a bias against—and there are a number among alternative health products and providers—you'd better be prepared to add one additional hat to all the hats small-business owner must wear: advocacy. McAfee sounds as if he's ready to counterattack. He says his Web site has had "millions of hits" since the story about his farm broke and that he has received "thousands of e-mails of support."
He'll need all the advocacy strength and support he can muster to shake the army of regulators who have his farm in their sights.