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Behind the scenes of milk safety and our e. Coli scare last week.

August 18, 2023

Last week, we had an e. Coli scare. Gasp! Please don’t freak out. It was a false positive, and we kinda knew it would be like that. But, that didn’t mean that our farm world wasn’t turned upside down because of it. Here’s what happened.

Because we’re certified for raw milk for humans in Pennsylvania, the State does periodic third-party testing for SPC (standard plate count), SCC (somatic cell count), TCC (total coliform count), Salmonella, E.coli, Listeria, and Campylobacter. 

The State took a sample of our main farm’s bulk milk tank on Wednesday 8/2. Then, on Monday 8/7, we found out that it came back positive for e. Coli (FYI everything else was negative). 

How did we find out? Well, an Inspector came to the farm and red taped all dairy products that could have been contaminated: all of our raw milk and all of our raw dairy products. They even tried to red tape our pasteurized dairy products, despite the fact that pasteurization kills e. Coli! Ugh. Thankfully, Aaron talked them out of that last one.

And I mean “red tape” in the literal sense. The Inspector literally put red tape over the products on the shelves. And, if we were to sell them, it would be illegal. It’s like caution tape, but red. And even though it’s obviously and easily removable, it feels pretty official and permanent and scary. 

What were we to do? Do we sing from the hilltops, spread fear about this freak positive test, and let customers know what we’re actively doing about it? Or, do we keep our heads on straight, act fast, and figure out a way to get our customers definitely safe dairy? We chose the latter.

First off, we know how vilified raw milk and a handful of potentially harmful pathogens are now (out of the trillion species of microorganisms on Earth). We live in a modern, sanitary, safety conscious culture reliant on avoidance and fear. We didn’t want to perpetuate that fear… at least not prematurely. In my opinion, I think we should focus more on building immunity and resilience within our bodies.

Second, being in this business for a while, we know that the State’s tests are notorious for being ultra sensitive (dare I say faulty) and that, in most cases, the first positive is actually a false positive (I think y’all can commiserate from our collective pandemic experience).

The State doesn’t consider one test alone a definite sign of contamination. You need two positive tests to confirm contamination. And we’ve heard time and again from local farms about contamination scares, but actually getting two positives and actually having a real contamination issue is rare.

On the Monday when the alarming red taping happened, a second sample was taken and sent to the lab. But, it takes time to get the results back. We didn’t find out until Thursday that the second test was negative (which we had to hunt down since the State only has urgency for positive tests). This meant that the first test was a false positive. Again, if there were truly a problem, then both tests would have been positive. 

In between Monday and Thursday, a whole lot of hustling happened to make sure everyone got their milk. 

  • Thank goodness Aaron’s brother David runs our second dairy farm now. Aaron was over there multiple nights last week bottling milk. 
  • We needed to move Thursday pickup to Friday. This meant that customers, the staff, the drivers, and everyone needed to rearrange their schedules last minute. 
  • The kitchen team needed to put some raw dairy products out of stock for a few days. We never like doing that, but we simply didn’t have enough definitely safe milk.
  • The customer service team had an overload of emails about the change and all that. 
  • There are a lot more little things, too, but I’ll stop here.

And all this for what? A false positive. There was nothing wrong with any of that milk the whole time. Sadly, we had lots of milk go to waste 😔

Don’t get me wrong. Food safety, especially for our milk, is so important to us. That’s why we go above and beyond with our MILK SAFETY STANDARDS

We do much more than the State requires. That includes testing every batch of raw milk on site for general bacteria counts, which is a great indicator of whether our meticulous cleaning practices are happening and working. For better or worse, that also includes telling you stories like this, so you can know everything about how your food is produced.

This is the kind of story that consumers rarely hear. They only hear it when things go awfully wrong and Food Safety News is blasting out “DUMP YOUR MILK” articles that shame farmers or processors. 

In my opinion, government regulation of food safety is ultimately a good thing, but it’s absolutely not perfect (what government agency is, after all). I mean, why red tape after the first test, knowing that false positives are common? If you red tape, then shouldn’t there be a recall, too? Nope, a recall only happens after a second positive test. And why wait 4 days to find out the results? Can’t there be a rush testing facility somewhere? We really need faster results to provide our customers the safest food experience while also making sure our farmers can stay in business.

What do you think? Is food safety something you worry about? Should we sing from the hilltops after a first positive test? Or, should we wait for the second test to confirm it? Are our milk safety standards up to your standards?

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Marie Reedell