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Raw Milk Dairy Under Investigation for E. coli Illnesses

On Sept. 21, 2006, the California Department of Food and Agriculture announced a statewide recall of raw milk produced by Organic Pastures after the dairy was implicated in an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7.  Six children were sickened and three were hospitalized. Now, five years later, history appears to be repeating.  

On Wednesday California agriculture officials issued a recall notice almost identical to the one in 2006, announcing unpasteurized raw dairy products from Organic Pastures were being recalled because they might be the source of an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 that has sickened 5 children.

The children fell ill at different times over eight weeks from August through November, but all were infected with the same strain of E. coli, as determined by genetic fingerprinting of the bacteria.  

Three of the children have been hospitalized with hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a life-threatening complication of E. coli infection that affects the kidneys. 

Investigators determined that raw milk from Organic Pastures was the only common source of exposure for all five children. 

The dairy is now prohibited from selling any of its raw milk products, except for cheese aged beyond 60 days. The ban is expected to remain in place for 7-9 days while samples are collected and analyzed. 

Mark McAfee, owner of Organic Pastures, appealed the quarantine order, requesting that it be limited to raw whole milk only, because that is the product the ill children consumed.

McAfee also asked that a ban on any of his dairy’s products be lifted for at least 10 days pending results of herd fecal tests. At a hearing Wednesday, the California Department of Food and Agriculture upheld the recall and quarantine of the raw milk products.

If the ban stays in place, Organic Pastures, which typically sells about 2,400 gallons of raw milk a week, expects to see a significant profit loss.

The company lacks insurance to cover any of the recalled milk. And McAfee says this coming week is traditionally the dairy’s most profitable week.

“We sell about $145,000 per week and this week was going to be our highest sales ever … right before Thanksgiving.” McAfee said in an e-mailed statement to Food Safety News. 

McAfee claims that his raw milk products have consistently tested negative for E. coli O157:H7, and says samples obtained from products kept by victims’ families had also tested negative.

“Organic Pastures uses a third-party for pathogen testing multiple times per week. All these tests have been negative,” the dairy’s Facebook page states. 

However, test results posted on the company’s website suggest that samples were screened for E. coli less frequently than that.  

Between Aug. 1 and Oct. 17, 2011 – the last date for which lab results are available online – there is an average of 11 days between testing dates. Milk was tested for E. coli O157:H7 8 times during this period. 

Testing seems to have been done somewhat more regularly over the summer preceding these months, but there are gaps of up to 17 days between sample collections. 

In a statement, the dairy also argued that those sickened may have consumed milk from other dairy farms, and that raw milk drinkers who buy from Organic Pastures often get their milk from multiple sources. 

McAfee said that the mother of one ill child confirmed buying raw milk for her son from two different sources. 

Fans of Organic Pastures have been quick to defend the dairy on its Facebook page. They say raw milk is not a dangerous beverage, and that they will continue to buy Organic Pastures’ products when they become available again.

“I completely stand behind your products and the wonderful healing properties for myself and my 3 yr old twins,” wrote one woman. “In fact, I went to my local market last night and cleared the shelves of cream, butter and superleche so that I would have enough to hold me through this process. Thanks for keeping us updated!”

Organic Pastures raw milk that remained on shelves Wednesday was quickly snapped up by consumers. McAfee says that one heated discussion at an Los Angeles-area buyers club “resulted in near hand-to-hand combat.”

While expressing doubt that his farm was the cause of the outbreak, McAfee expressed sympathy for its victims and their families.

“Our hearts go out to the kids who got sickened. We don’t want kids to be sick,” he said, speaking on behalf of the family-run company.

McAfee says he was unaware of the possible link between his farm and this E. coli outbreak until state officials arrived at his farm Tuesday to collect environmental samples from soil, water, manure and drains.  

Months ago the dairy had ordered a brand new bottle capper and filler, which arrived Wednesday morning. It will take a week to install the equipment, so the dairy will use this down time to reassess its operation – something it hasn’t had the time to do because business has been so brisk these past 10 years. 

“We’ll have a tight plan,” McAfee said. “It will be a better, brand-new company.”

For Mary McGonigle-Martin, whose son was one of the children who suffered E. coli infections linked to Organic Pastures in 2006, this latest scare surrounding its unpasteurized products hits too close to home.

“I’m devastated for the dairy. I’m devastated for the families. People who get drawn into drinking raw milk are really made to believe it’s very, very safe.”

McGonigle’s son suffered kidney failure and was hospitalized for 55 days after he drank raw milk and was poisoned by E. coli O157:H7. 

An investigation by the state health department determined that “The source of infection for these children was likely raw milk products produced by [Organic Pastures].”

McGonigle says that if raw milk is also the probable source of this latest outbreak, it will be a good reminder “for families that are led to believe there’s not a risk in drinking raw milk to always be careful. Don’t get lulled into the belief that this couldn’t happen to you.”

Thirty states permit raw milk sales while 20 states have some sort of limits or prohibition — the same numbers and the same states as in 2008. In the past three years five states — New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Idaho, Vermont and South Dakota — have adopted stricter standards for how free of bacteria raw milk must be.

Under federal law, unpasteurized milk cannot be sold or distributed across state lines. There is no law against personal consumption of raw milk.

In California, state law requires that raw milk and raw milk products offered for sale be labeled with this public health alert: “Warning – raw (unpasteurized) milk and raw milk dairy products may contain disease-causing micro-organisms. Persons at highest risk of disease from these organisms include newborns and infants; the elderly; pregnant women; those taking corticosteroids, antibiotics or antacids; and those having chronic illnesses or other conditions that weaken their immunity.”

Cookson Beecher contributed reporting to this article.

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