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O157: H7

When a new E. coli strain sickened several children, the culprit appeared to be raw milk from a Fresno dairy. What had started as a small revolution was now on the front lines.

December 03, 2006|Mark Arax | Mark Arax is a senior writer for West. He is the author of "In My Father's Name" and co-author of "The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire."

In the days and weeks of the great E. coli hunt of 2006, it was hard to find farmers more befuddled than the spinach farmers of central California. Their crop had sickened hundreds of people across the country--three were dead--and now they had come out of the fields to stand in the open, where no farmer wants to stand. They looked like victims of a hit and run. How the Escherichia coli bacteria known as O157:H7 had managed to strike their perfect rows of spinach they couldn't begin to explain. Whether by water or wind or compost or wild swine, the vector was as much a mystery to them as it was to the scores of state and federal investigators now ransacking their fields. The farmers would not rest until they personally had tracked down the pathogen's source and wiped it clean from the Salinas Valley.

Then one evening in late September, the mass dumping of spinach gave way to a new threat hiding out in the refrigerator, and a farmer with a different face showed up on TV. He hadn't shaved in a week and his eyes had the look of a man with two hands squeezed around his throat. His name was Mark McAfee, and he ran a dairy and grew almonds 100 miles to the south in the San Joaquin Valley. The state of California had just linked five distinct cases of E. coli poisoning to his milk--raw organic milk--and imposed a quarantine and recall. All of the victims were children. A 7-year-old boy from Riverside County and a 10-year-old girl from San Bernardino County were fighting for their lives inside the same intensive-care unit at Loma Linda University Medical Center. This sub strain of O157:H7 was intricately different from the sub strain carried by the spinach. Indeed, this incarnation of E. coli had never been seen in the U.S.

Yet rather than dump the milk, the hard-core among McAfee's 15,000 customers in California, who regarded the recall as nothing more than a government conspiracy to deny them "living food," raced for the last bottles on the health-food market shelves. McAfee--the nation's biggest producer of raw milk, milk not pasteurized or homogenized, milk straight from the cow's udder to a child's mouth with only a cotton sock filter in between--did not discourage them. Before he could bring himself to believe that his cows had sickened anyone, the state would have to find the fingerprints of the O157:H7 subtype in his milk or at his dairy, just as investigators had done with the spinach. And that hadn't happened, at least not yet.

"I told the state, 'Have at it. Take your probes and poke into every crevice and crack on these 400 acres.' So 16 state inspectors in their little plastic spacesuits came here and took hundreds of samples. I lifted my kilt for full inspection and they did every test in the book. They tested the milk, the drains, the bottling machines, the milkers, the rear ends of cows, the fresh manure in the pasture, the fresh manure off the udders. Not a pathogen anywhere. No O157:H7. No salmonella. No listeria. So why am I still shut down?" He glared. "Because they're afraid of the revolution."

McAfee watched himself on the news that night. He wondered if people saw the same thing he saw. Isn't that Rodger McAfee's son? Sounds just like the old man. Commie father. Commie son. A thousand revolutions left undone. Isn't that the same land Rodger used to bail Angela Davis out of jail? Wasn't his youngest son killed because of all his malarkey? As hard as Mark McAfee had tried to suppress the traits of his father, it was plain to see the patrimony. In some ways, that bit of Rodger was the best part of his oldest son. How else could he explain, after all, that he, too, had become a heretic on the land?

Mark McAfee had come to believe, like the physicians of the first half of the 20th century believed, that raw milk is powerful medicine. Through the chemistry of what is known in the naturopathic movement as probiotics, McAfee had seen his milk cure asthma in kids and irritable bowels in adults. For thousands of years, man and cow had shared the same space. The farther we as a society had moved away from our cows and our soil, science was showing, the more sick we had become. Without our barns and our pastures, we didn't have the inoculation of the farm to help us fight off the bad bugs. Raw fresh milk, in all its living, breathing culture, was the blood of the farm sent straight to the city. All those steroid inhalers, all those little purple pills to treat the old-fashioned heartburn that the pharmaceutical industry had turned into billion-dollar diseases with the acronyms of war--I.B.S., G.E.R.D.--were rubbish as far as Mark McAfee was concerned. They were just one glass of fresh raw milk removed from the trash heap.

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