Two Lancaster County residents experienced stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting after drinking raw milk distributed by Your Family Cow farm in Chambersburg, Pa., in January of this year. They were diagnosed with Campylobacter illness, a bacterial infection.
These two people, who both live within a short drive of Elizabethtown, were not the only ones in the area to be diagnosed. 38 more cases of Campylobacter have sprung up in Pennsylvania, as well as in a few surrounding states. Every person who wound up with the sickness had one commonality: they all drank the raw milk from Your Family Cow farm.
Fourth-generation owners of Your Family Cow farm, the Shank family was in high hopes during the extensive testing of their raw milk, which began at the end of January and stretched into the start of February. They did not want to believe that their product could have made their loyal customers sick, said Edwin Shank, the primary owner.
The entire goal of their raw milk is to offer people “the opportunity to experience fresh, organic raw milk just as if they had their own family cow.” The Shanks wanted to offer unprocessed foods because they believe the consumption of these all-organic foods can make people healthier.
Yet, to their dismay, on Feb. 3, they were forced to officially admit to the public that a batch of their raw milk from January had tested positive for Campylobacter. They immediately had to pull all of their raw milk from the shelves in stores and stop production until the Pennsylvania Department of Health (PDH) and the PA Department of Agriculture (PDA) conducted further investigation.
Though they were never able to pinpoint exactly what allowed this bacterial infection to grow in their milk, it is suspected that the source could have been the Shanks’ hot water system which is used to wash out the milk tank, milking system and bottler that are used during the milking process. The water heater in the system was only brining the water to about 140-150 degrees, while the more sanitary heat of 160-170 is preferable.
Shank said they used their “down time” productively, to make renovations which have replaced the old system with “a high tech, computerized tank-less system that constantly delivers 180-degree water or hotter if we wish.”
Shank said they are also “outfitting [their] own laboratory,” so that the farm can “test every lot of milk we bottle and hold it ‘til the test shows that it is clear to go.”
This idea goes beyond what is necessary for the approval of the PDH and PDA; as Shank put it, “the new protocol differs from what is required by PDA, but let’s just suffice to say that it’s the difference between looking in your rear-view mirror versus the windshield while driving.” Shank is adamant that this type of crisis will never affect their farm again, which has never had any such problems before in its nearly 100 years of existence.
On Feb. 6, “after a week of grueling testing and inspections,” Shank was able to announce that Your Family Cow’s raw milk would be back on the market — though in celebration, Shank pushed that even “in this moment of rejoicing, please, everyone, do not forget those of our customers who had it rough the last week or earlier.” Even Shank’s five-year-old son, Jefferson, “prays at every chance he gets that God would make all the sick people better again.” Shank promised, “Our family will never forget the food safety lesson of 2012.”
Although the future could be grim for a business whose customers have suffered on account of its products, Shank believes that the farm will continue to thrive in the future. Shank has received “one-thousand plus supportive emails” from customers. To Shank this “represents an attitude of love, grace and forgiveness that even we didn’t know to expect and even now do not feel worthy of.” Yet, Shank said this support is what “gives us as your farmers, renewed vision, energy, mission, hope and commitment.”
Shank plans to continue his family’s century-old dream of offering the community organic, whole foods and that includes selling raw milk.
He said, “We are growing food for noble people. And we, more than ever, are driven to return the favor with quality and safety that is better than ever.”