By Dr. Mercola
In the last year, three people have died and 10 more have become ill due to listeria bacteria in Blue Bell ice cream products. Texas-based Blue Bell Creameries is the fourth largest ice cream maker in the US.
Earlier this month, the company pulled all of its products from store shelves after listeria was found in tests of its half-gallon ice cream containers. Just days later, a second US ice cream maker, Jeni's, also recalled all of its ice creams, sorbets, and ice cream sandwiches from the market, and temporarily closed all of its shops.
Their recall was also due to possible listeria contamination, which was found in a sample tested by the Nebraska Department of Agriculture. Consuming food contaminated with the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes can lead to a foodborne illness called listeriosis.
In healthy people, the illness is generally mild and causes stomach symptoms, but it can be serious and even deadly for pregnant women and fetuses, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems.
Ironically, this is also the disease the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) often uses as its "poster child" in its warnings against drinking raw milk, but this actually deflects from the fact that people are dying from listeria found in other commonly eaten foods – like pasteurized ice cream.
Evidence of Listeria Found at Blue Bell Plants as Early as 2010
The fact that people have died from eating ice cream becomes all the more tragic because Blue Bell Creameries found strong evidence of listeria at its Broken Arrow, Oklahoma plant back in 2013 – but did not improve its sanitation efforts as a result.1
According to findings released by the FDA, tests at the plant indicated a "presumptive positive" for listeria after the bacteria was found on non-food-contact surfaces, including floors and pallets used to store ingredients.
You would think such findings would prompt the company to test food areas and the ice cream itself for contamination, but such tests were reportedly not conducted. Seattle attorney and food safety expert Bill Marler told the Chronicle:2
"That's as bad as it gets… You're just not doing what you're supposed to do… It's almost like they were looking for it in areas that if they found it there they didn't get in much trouble… They just didn't look for it in areas where the risk to the consumer was the highest."
Water condensation was also found to be dripping into sherbet containers during production and may have contaminated ice cream mix. Testing conducted by Blue Bell also revealed levels of coliform bacteria in 2014 that exceeded those allowed by Oklahoma. Marler continued:3
"When you look at coliform and listeria for the Broken Arrow plant you have a systemic cleaning problem that goes on for years… You know you have a problem."
According to Blue Bell's website, they were also notified by the CDC in 2015 that the DNA fingerprint from the listeria found in Blue Bell products was linked to cases of listeriosis dating back to 2010.4
Where Are the Calls to Ban Pasteurized Ice Cream?
An entire section of the FDA website is devoted to warning Americans about the "dangers" of raw milk. There it states that more than 1,500 people in the US became sick from raw milk from 1993 to 2006.5 This is just over 115 people per year, on average… in a country were 9 million people get sick from foodborne illness annually.6
As for deaths linked to raw milk, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has long claimed that between 1998 and 2008 there were two deaths from raw milk. In 2012, Mark McAfee, the owner of Organic Pasture Dairy, challenged these claims and sought more details from the CDC, which he only got after he threatened to file a Freedom of Information Act request.
It turns out those deaths weren't caused by anyone drinking raw milk from US farms… they were caused by a form of cheese that isn't legal under current FDA regulations, called queso fresco. McAfee wrote the following in 2012:
"I submitted a FOIA request to the CDC to request data on the two deaths that the CDC database claims were from raw milk. The data I received back from the CDC showed that in fact there had been no death from raw milk at all.
The two deaths had been from illegal Mexican bathtub cheese and not raw milk from any place in America. Why does the CDC persist in publishing this erroneous information?
If the CDC is a scientific organization and not a data spinning, twisting arm of Big Ag dairy processors, processors that hate raw milk because they lose control over markets when farmers connect directly to consumers with clean raw milk, I would urge you to correct the data that is posted at your raw milk website and include the correct data.
There have been no deaths from raw milk or even raw milk products in America from an American source of raw milk. That is the data that the CDC gave me."
Deaths from Raw Milk: 0… Deaths from Ice Cream: 3
So we have raw milk, a product that has caused no deaths since 1998… and pasteurized ice cream, which caused three deaths in the last year. No one is even suggesting that pasteurized ice cream be banned from sale, or that Blue Bell Creameries, which has a history of ignoring contamination at its plants, be shut down.
But the sale of raw milk continues to be illegal across much of the US, while the government continues to target peaceful raw milk farmers producing a safe, healthy food for people who want it.
Outrageously, aggressive armed raids by federal agents against Amish raw milk farmers are not uncommon. Raw milk isn't the only food on the chopping block, either. Raw milk cheeses and heritage-breed pigs are also being targeted, and there's no telling what other small-farm, niche foods may be next. Meanwhile, other foods are killing and sickening millions.
Which Foods Have Caused the Most Recent Listeria Outbreaks?
According to the CDC, 1,600 illnesses and 260 deaths due to listeriosis occur every year in the US. Aside from pasteurized ice cream, what other foods are responsible for the most recent listeria outbreaks? You'll notice raw milk is nowhere on this list. According to CDC data:7
- 2011: Whole cantaloupes were responsible for 147 illnesses, 33 deaths, and one miscarriage. This was the largest listeriosis outbreak in US history.
- 2012: Pasteurized Frescolina Marte brand ricotta salata cheese sickened 22 people, and four deaths occurred.
- 2013: Three types of pasteurized cheese made by Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese Company of Waterloo, Wisconsin sickened six people, with one death reported.
- 2014: Pasteurized cheese products made by Roos Foods have sickened eight people with one death reported.
Other foods found with listeria contamination in 2014 and 2015 include pre-packaged caramel apples, organic and conventional spinach, and hummus. A 2011 study also revealed deli meats to be the most risky choice, as ready-to-eat foods like these can become contaminated after cooking during the packaging process.8
According to the 2011 report, the risks associated with deli meats from the supermarket deli are five times higher than prepackaged deli meats. Raw vegetables are also a potential source of contamination, as are other meats.
A report produced by the Interagency Food Safety Analytics Collaboration (IFSAC), a partnership of the US Department of Agriculture, the FDA, and the CDC, also revealed which foods are most likely to make you sick… and CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) beef and vegetables (often contaminated by CAFO pollution) were the top sources of foodborne illness.9
You Can Get Sick from Eating Virtually Any Food
Of the 9 million people who get sick from eating food each year, 55,000 are hospitalized and 1,000 will die.10 These are the estimates from IFSAC, which are actually far lower than those given by the CDC in 2011. According to those estimates, the problem is far worse with 48 million people being sickened by foodborne diseases each year, including 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.11 According to the IFSAC report, certain foods cause so many illnesses each year that shopping at your supermarket is like playing a game of Russian roulette. It's possible to get sick from eating a cheeseburger, a bowl of salad, or a slice of cantaloupe.
And, yes, it's possible to get sick from drinking raw milk, too, but it's less of a risk than is posed by many other foods, particularly if you use a high-quality source. Research by Dr. Ted Beals, MD even showed you are about 35,000 times more likely to get sick from other foods than you are from raw milk!12 So why is raw milk being singled out, especially when it hasn't been linked to a single death in nearly a decade?
Government agencies have painted the picture that if you go to a farm and purchase high-quality farm-fresh milk (i.e. raw milk), you're walking away with a food that is crawling in dangerous bacteria. The way they make it sound, you'd think you could get sick just by looking at it. But I'd take my chances on the farm any day.
The fact is, the majority of foods that are making people sick are coming not from small organic farms selling raw-milk products… they're coming from CAFOs and the mega-companies that use their products, like Blue Bell. Yet, despite the fact that people have died, there is no consumer outrage calling for all pasteurized ice cream to be removed from shelves. There are no armed raids going down at the ice-cream plants, either, to seize the contaminated goods.
Join the Fight for Food Freedom
The fight over raw milk stands as a symbol of the much larger fight for food freedom. Who gets to decide what you eat? You? Or the FDA? If the FDA and other government agencies are allowed to impose their view of "safe food" on consumers, raw milk won't be the only thing lost—all food will be pasteurized, irradiated, and genetically engineered.
The effort to reclaim our right to buy and consume raw milk is leading the way for everyone who wants to be able to obtain the food of their choice from the source of their choice. So please, get involved! I urge you to get involved with the following action plan to protect your right to choose your own foods:
- Get informed: Visit www.farmtoconsumer.org or click here to sign up for action alerts. To review the raw milk laws in your state, see the Farm-to-Consumer.org's Raw Milk Nation page.
- Join the fight for your rights: The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund (FTCLDF) is the only organization of its kind. This 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization provides a legal defense for farmers who are being pursued by the government for distributing foods directly to consumers. Your donations, although not tax deductible, will be used to support the litigation, legislative, and lobbying efforts of the FTCLDF.
- Support your local farmers: Getting your raw milk from a local organic farm or co-op is one of the best ways to ensure you're getting high-quality milk. You can locate a raw milk source near you at the Campaign for Real Milk Website. California residents can find raw milk retailers by using the store locator available at www.OrganicPastures.com.
As with all foods, the source matters, and this is just as true with raw milk as any other food. If you're interested in raw milk, here are tips for finding high-quality raw milk sources.
How to Minimize Your Risk of Foodborne Illness
Sometimes, foodborne illness may be inevitable, but there are steps you can take to lower your risk. This includes commonsense measures like washing your hands and sanitizing counters/cutting boards after handling potentially contaminated foods, rinsing fruits and vegetables before eating, and storing foods at the proper temperature.
One important factor impacting whether your food is "safe" isn't total storage time, but rather how much time it spends in the temperature "danger zone" (between 40-120 degrees Fahrenheit).13 You'll want to avoid leaving your groceries in a hot car for too long, for instance, as this will generally promote foodborne illness.
It's important to keep in mind that the potential for foodborne illness applies to ANY food, and where it comes from is probably the greatest indicator of whether it's likely to be safe or contaminated. So ultimately the key to making sure that any food you eat is safe is to get it from a high-quality source. I can't stress the importance of this enough.
When you get your produce from small farmers that raise their food in natural settings using clean water, as opposed to massive agribusiness conglomerations that use sewage sludge as fertilizer, there is very little risk in eating these foods raw. The same goes for meat, eggs, and raw dairy products, as well.
I also suggest browsing through my Sustainable Agriculture resource page to find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of safe, high-quality food. Not only are these sources likely to raise food in more sanitary conditions than a CAFO, but there's a better chance that it will also be locally grown. The closer you are to the source of your food, the fewer hands it has to pass through and the less time it will sit in storage -- so the better, and likely safer, it will be for you and your family.
Finally, along with the practical precautions mentioned above, lowering your chances of becoming ill from food poisoning also involves keeping your immune system healthy by following these five steps to boost your immune system health.