Creating a successful product is always tough. It’s doubly tough when you’re required to put a label on your product warning “pregnant women, children and the elderly” to beware.
But in some cases it’s also profitable. Raw milk, for example.
While a gallon of pasteurized milk can go for a little as $2.30, the folks at Dungeness Valley Creamery don’t let any of theirs go for less than $6.50 or so.
“It’s a niche product,” said Jeff Brown, who with his wife, Debbie, started the creamery 21 years ago. “People who are really conscientious about their diet will pay a premium.”
Given that the dairy produces 275 to 300 gallons a day, that’s quite a revenue stream — enough to keep more than a dozen employees working.
It’s also enough to make the hard work and hassle worthwhile, Brown said.
After 20 years in the business, the Browns sold the farm to their daughter and son-in-law, Sara and Ryan
McCarthey in 2012.
The new owners weren’t unaware of the difficulties they were purchasing along with their new opportunity.
But they were surprised when they received notice on Friday, Feb. 22, that the Department of Agriculture had issued a “Can’t Rule Out” for the presence of E. coli bacteria in one of their products — a batch of cream sampled on Feb. 19 and with a best-by date of March 2.
The McCartheys were told they weren’t required to do anything until the official test results came back, but they weren’t taking any chances. They pulled the cream from the shelves of the 20 Washington stores that stock it.
Meanwhile, Jeff, who had a quart of the cream at home, happily consumed it.
“I wasn’t worried,” he laughed.
The McCartheys also asked Agriculture to send out an inspector that day, Feb. 22, to check the dairy products that had been packaged since the Feb. 19 samples were taken.
Agriculture responded by saying they’d be there on Monday instead. They were and the test results came out clean.
Hector Castro, a spokesman with Agriculture, said the logistics for a Friday inspection just didn’t work. “You’re in Sequim and we’re in Olympia.”
And, he added, “We were preparing for a confirmation” of results from the first test.
Then the final results of the first inspection revealed the presence of E. coli in the cream. A press release quickly went out from Agriculture declaring, “Consumers should not drink raw Jersey cream, raw Jersey whole milk or raw Jersey skim milk from the Dungeness Valley Creamery. Products with best by dates of 03/02 or later may be contaminated.”
It gets scarier: “Some strains of E. coli produce a toxin called Shiga toxin that can lead to severe illness. Shiga toxin-producing E. coli infections may cause severe diarrhea, stomach cramps and bloody stool. The infection sometimes causes hemolytic uremic syndrome, a serious disease in which red blood cells are destroyed and the kidneys fail.”
The various county health departments where the stores were located moved in, removing the unsold products or posting warnings regarding all of the dairy’s products produced between the 19th and the 24th. In the end, the dairy lost about $2,800 in revenue, Ryan said.
Ryan notes that the press release indicts all three of the creamery’s products: cream, whole milk and skim milk. No indication was ever found of contamination in the latter two. That doesn’t make sense, he said.
The folks at Agriculture disagree, saying that since the cream is removed from the whole milk (leaving skim milk), prudence called for removing all three products.
Steve Fuller, manager of the agency’s food safety rapid response team, said, “Finding these organisms isn’t an exact science. The sample sizes that we collect are small compared to the batch size. Just because you don’t find it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.”
Fuller added, “We would do the same again if put in the same position. We know it’s upset a lot of people, but I’m sure even folks that drink raw milk would want to know if there’s something in it.”
Agriculture also is requiring the dairy to come up with a new production process for cream. So far the McCartheys have simply put a stop to their production of cream and skim milk and are only selling whole milk.
The couple fired back at Agriculture, posting on their website a quick response describing the immediate action they took to remove the product from store shelves before they were required to.
They also called the press release “unfortunate on several levels and we hope it did not mislead any of our consumers to believe that our entire product line is contaminated. The recall is specific to the raw cream with the expiration date of 3/2.”
They added, “We are grateful for your continued support and loyalty as we face this difficult time.”
On the offensive
Jeff Brown says the whole thing is much ado about nothing. It’s all part of a larger effort to hurt the raw milk industry, he said.
“In this country we don’t have a food safety problem. We have a bureaucratic problem,” he said. “The product we deal in is a normal, natural product that never kills anyone.”
Brown said pasteurization wasn’t standard practice — or useful — until people began moving to urban centers, creating the need for larger and often more unhygienic dairies. Milk was never the issue. “Louis Pasteur created the process for the wine industry to kill a mold,” he said.
Pasteurizing covers a multitude of sins, Brown said, including making safe what can be very dirty milk. Pasteurized milk often has millions of bacteria, he said. “They’re just dead.”
And pasteurizing harms the natural goodness of milk.
“They call it ‘lactose intolerance,’” Brown said. “It’s misnamed. It’s pasteurized-milk intolerance.”
“There is something in milk that gets killed with pasteurization. It’s what allows the body to digest milk.”
Too many regulations are dangerous, he added. “They want everything you eat to be sterile. If everything is sterile, your body won’t be able to fight it.”
Jeff has been milking cows since 1963, first at the Maple View Dairy and later at the Dungeness Creamery.
He and his family were first introduced to the benefits of raw milk when he was approached by a woman whose husband was fighting cancer. It was the only food he could keep down, he said.
“When Debbie and I decided to sell raw milk, we looked into it.”
“I talked to my milk inspector and he said, ‘It’s illegal in this state.’”
“So I talked to his boss. I eventually went up the chain high enough to find someone who said, ‘Oh, it’s not illegal. I’ll send you a packet.’”
It may be legal, but it’s not simple.
State law still bans the use of raw milk in the production of ice cream, butter and yogurt.
The creamery also is assessed a state fee that is used to promote the sale of pasteurized milk, a matter Brown finds greatly annoying.
He doesn’t pull any punches when dealing with the regulators. “I’ve had a war with the (Clallam) County Health Department since I started,” he said. “They wanted me to buy some permits, but the state has given me a license.”
He also says the creamery’s customers agree the state is overstepping.
When the company made the papers in 2009 for allegedly making three people sick, “sales went up” as people discovered raw milk was available locally.
He agrees the controversies are “a blemish on our good name.” And, he added, “It kills the future market.”
Local stores have restocked their shelves with Dungeness Creamery products. At the Good To Go Grocery in Port Angeles it’s business as usual. Store owner Elizabeth Seifert said, “Yes, we’re going to continue to carry it. People are still purchasing it.”
“I’m willing to support anyone local. And I think overall — especially considering it’s a raw product — they’ve done well.”
Mark Ozias, co-owner of The Red Rooster grocery in Sequim, said the creamery responded appropriately to the state’s concerns. “They were on top of this,” he said.
“I’m confident of their products. And it tastes fabulous.”
He added, “There are people who depend on finding it here.”
Reach Mark Couhig at email@example.com.