By: Candess Zona-Mendola

A raw milk outbreak from a United Kingdom-based farm provides more evidence why raw milk products, even those procured from exceptional farms, are dangerous. In December, England’s Food Standard Agency (FSA) shut down operations at the Low Sizergh Barn farm when campylobacter was found in test samples of the farm’s raw milk products. In less than a week since the shutdown, almost 60 cases of campylobacteriosis have been linked to the farm. All the more troubling is that the Low Sizergh Barn is a recipient of the National Trust Fine Farm Produce award – an award that recognizes only the best farms that produce the best products.

Background on the Low Sizergh Barn Farm

The Low Sizergh Barn is a family owned and fully-operational farm in South Cumbria, UK. The multi-generational ownership and existence of the farm itself purports to date back to the 13th century “when it provided food for the castle across the fields.” Nestled in the Northwestern part of England, the Low Sizergh Barn resides in the quintessential ideal of farm country surrounded by miles of green grasses and wildflower meadows. In fact, the area is known to be the home of the country’s oldest agricultural roots and farms. The owners attract business with a blend of good family values and an eye toward the organic trends that are sweeping the country. Despite the fact that the farm not only grows organic produce and houses a retail shop complete with a tea room, the owners boast that their main crop is “the grass that the cows eat all year round which helps them produce milk that we sell to a local dairy and to other a cheese and ice cream maker.” In its biography, the farm claims to provide their products to more than 40 businesses and acts as a marketplace for over 80 local suppliers.

If the origins and location of the farm were not idyllic enough for the average consumer, its accolades would certainly charm them further. The farm has received awards ranging from the best managed farm to the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Farmers’ and Retail Markets Association. The farm’s cattle eat grasses grown naturally right on the property. The farm, in the past anyway, has been considered well-managed and clean. The owners and operators of the farm are experienced for many generations of dairy farming and production. The family alleges to consume the milk themselves daily, citing the belief that “the word milk means the raw, natural product that comes straight from the herd.” The average consumer can visibly see the cows in the pasture as they fill their containers with fresh raw milk. Animal welfare is represented at the forefront of the company’s mind. With a herd of over 170 cows, the farm states its theory of producing the best milk is:

“[H]appy animals create a healthy yield. Almost all the cows have been bred and reared by us. They graze the fields in the summer but live undercover between November and March, eating silage made from grass and other crops grown on the farm. With rubber-floored cubicles to sleep in, plenty of water to drink and scratching posts for comfort, they winter in the cow building until the weather picks up.”

In short, the Low Sizergh Barn is exactly the type of farm that pro-milk supporters and enthusiasts argue is the best and safest place to obtain raw milk products. Sadly, the farm also provides a more harrowing lesson that raw milk from even the best possible farm can still make you sick.

The Outbreak

On December 22, 2016, the company announced on its website that, as a precautionary measure, it was recalling its Low Sizergh Farm Raw Cow’s Drinking Milk products. The products were sold in the company’s deli, general store, and in vending machines. The company also noted that the raw milk products had confirmed links to six cases of campylobacteriosis.

The following day, the FSA ordered the company to immediately cease all dairy operations. It is reported that tests by the FSA shows positive results of campylobacter bacteria in the company’s vending machine and on its other dairy production equipment.

A week later, over 50 additional cases had probable links to the farm. The victims range from one year-old to 86 years old. The confirmed outbreak led to the cooperation and joint investigations of the FSA, the South Lakeland District Counsel (SLDC), and Public Health England – the national public health agency. The agencies are continuing to investigate the outbreak. The source of contamination has not yet been discovered. SLDC’s Public Protection Manager Fiona Inston stated that the agencies are not yet aware of the size of the outbreak and that the farm’s private water supply may be the culprit for the contamination. The company is working with the governmental agencies in their investigation. The FSA is requesting that anyone who visited the farm complete an online survey here if they suspect they have become ill after ingesting raw milk.

The Raw Milk Ban

Concerns over the growth of the outbreak led the FSA to apply for an order banning the farm from selling raw milk. The requested order held the stipulation that raw milk could not be sold until the source of the contamination is found and that proper steps are taken to prevent future contamination. The petition was filed at Furness Magistrates’ Court. District Judge Gerald Chalk granted the FSA’s request, most likely as the company did not contest the petition. The FSA’s lawyer, Chris McGarvey issued the following statement after the hearing:

“Our first priority is to ensure public safety and we have acted in tandem with the other regulatory bodies to make sure that the public is safe.”

England-based media outlets have reported that the farm’s owners were aware of the contamination as long ago as September, but still continued to sell the tainted milk. The company contends that it “for months [has] been testing the milk and getting the right procedures in place… But campylobacter wasn’t one of the bacteria we were asked to test for so it came as rather a shock when [we] got the phone call…” The FSA Dairy Hygiene Inspector Brian Rigg represented that the company “submitted samples to an independent laboratory at [its] own expense to detect bacteria levels.” These samples purportedly were from September and returned with high levels of bacterial contamination. United Kingdom laws require farmers to report issues such as these to the proper regulatory agencies. The company, however, failed to do so.

In order for the ban to be lifted, the company has to not only find the source of contamination and represent its procedures to prevent it in the future, but it also must submit three consecutive tests to the government to show there is no trace of bacteria. The company believes it will be back to selling raw milk within a month.

Would It Be Enough?

Even if the Low Sizergh Barn puts the proper practices in place, without pasteurization, a future outbreak is still likely. Pasteurization is a crucial process to ensure that harmful bacteria, such as campylobacter, is killed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urge that “even dairy farms with very good safety practices can harbor illness-causing germs. And even if a batch of a farm’s raw milk tests come back negative, it is no guarantee that the next batch will be free of harmful germs.” Without pasteurization, no farmer can guarantee the safety of its raw milk products. For more information on the dangers of raw milk, you can read our posts here or visit the CDC website.