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Oregon Investigating E. coli Outbreak Possibly Linked to Raw Milk

State officials in Oregon are investigating an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 infections that has landed three children in the hospital and sickened another child who was not hospitalized. All of the children drank raw (unpasteurized) milk from Foundation Farm in Clackamas County.

According to the Oregonian, at least seven other people who drank the farm’s raw milk have developed symptoms of E. coli infection. 

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E. coli O157:H7 is a potentially fatal foodborne pathogen. Symptoms include diarrhea — sometimes bloody — and abdominal pain. Kidney failure and related complications may occur, especially among young children and the elderly. Anyone who has consumed raw milk and is suffering from those symptoms should contact his or her doctor.

Christine Stone, spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Public Health, told Food Safety News that two of the patients are suffering from HUS, or hemolytic uremic syndrome, a type of kidney failure. Because of privacy laws, she wasn’t free to reveal the ages of the children, but the department’s press release said all of the children are under 15.

In addition, other customers of the dairy are reporting recent diarrhea and other symptoms typical of E. coli O157 infections, according to the department’s press release.

Stone said that lab results from samples taken from the milk and the farm will be available on April 16 or early that week. Until then, the outbreak is still in the investigation phase.

The farm has voluntarily stopped distributing its milk. The Public Health Department has contacted consumers who are members of the farm’s herdshare dairy operation about the outbreak and has urged anyone who may have raw milk from the farm on hand not to drink it and to dispose of it.

The dairy distributes its milk to 48 households that are part of its herdshare operation. In herdshare arrangements, people contract to own a portion of a herd or individual animals. Under this arrangement, they are considered owners of the animals and therefore not customers of the dairy.

Julian Shelbourne, a member of Foundation Farm’s herdshare, told Food Safety News that he had been informed about the outbreak and the possible connection to the milk from the farm but that so far he hasn’t gotten sick.

He explained that he drinks raw milk because when he drinks pasteurized milk he “breaks out in spots.”

He admitted that the news about the outbreak was making him “a bit nervous,” and he said he’s waiting to find out more about it. If it turns out that the milk from Foundation Farm is indeed the culprit in the outbreak, he’ll have to decide what to do.

 ”I probably won’t drink milk at all,” he said.

Bruce Pokarney, spokesman for the Oregon Agriculture Department, told Food Safety News that there are no laws on the books in Oregon prohibiting herdshares.

“We don’t know how many there are,” he said. “They don’t have to tell us they even exist.”

Oregon doesn’t allow the retail sale of raw cow milk, although it does allow on-farm sales of raw milk from farms with no more than two producing cows, nine producing sheep, and/or nine producing goats. Farmers producing raw goat or sheep milk can sell in retail stores if they obtain a producer-distributor license and have their own bottling plant on site.

On April 14, local health officials in Clackamas, Washington and Multnomah counties were investigating the E. coli cases, which included interviewing family members of those infected. They are advising people to use bleach or other disinfectants to clean any containers, surfaces or other items that may have come into contact with the milk from Foundation Farm, as well as other products, such as eggs, from the farm.

Dr. Katrina Hedberg, Oregon Public Health Division state epidemiologist, warned in the state’s press release about the recent outbreak that “raw milk is not any healthier than pasteurized milk and can carry illness-causing bacteria.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while it’s possible to get foodborne illnesses from many different foods, raw milk is one of the riskiest of all, especially because young children are so vulnerable to foodborne pathogens such as E. coli, Campylobacter, Salmonella and Listeria, which can be in raw milk. Pasteurization kills those pathogens and others, thus making the milk safe to drink, as long as it hasn’t been contaminated after it’s been pasteurized.

 A recent report from CDC’s journal Emerging Infectious Diseases found that the rate of outbreaks caused by raw milk and products from it was 150 times greater than outbreaks linked to pasteurized milk. In addition, the 13-year review also found that the states where sales of raw milk are legal had more than double the number of dairy-related outbreaks than those where raw milk sales are not permitted.

Food-safety attorney Bill Marler (publisher of Food Safety News) has similar thoughts on this.   “The recent E. coli illnesses in Oregon and Missouri likely linked to raw milk are a continuing trend of outbreaks as raw milk has become popularized and more accessible,” he said.

The Food and Drug Administration offers an information page that discusses misconceptions about raw milk and the dangers of consuming it.

Small, local safer?

While many people swear by raw milk, saying it contains more nutrients than pasteurized milk and that it helps prevent health problems ranging from asthma to Crohn’s Disease, public officials say there is no scientific basis for those beliefs and that the only difference, healthwise, between raw and pasteurized milk is that there’s a greater health risk in consuming raw milk.

Many raw-milk customers say they also buy raw milk because it’s their way of supporting local farms, which are generally small-scale operations.

But Michele Jay-Russell, Food Safety and Security Specialist with the Western Institute

for Safety and Security at University of California, Davis, told Food Safety News that while in theory, small-scale farms generally can have more control over their herds and operations, they’re not “inherently different” from large farms when it comes to the risk of pathogen contamination.

“E coli, Salmonella and other foodborne pathogens don’t care if a farm is small or large,” she said.

A benefit that comes with small farms is that if there is a problem, it will usually be local and  on a smaller scale.

“But [an outbreak] can still result in hospitalizations or severe illnesses,” she said.

Pointing out that large farms can afford testing, record keeping, and consultations with food-safety experts, Jay-Russell said that can be out of the question financially for small-scale operations.

And although many small-scale dairies that sell raw milk tout the fact that they follow organic practices, pasture their cows instead of confining them, use no hormones or genetically modified feed, she said that doesn’t directly correlate with food safety.

For information about raw-milk outbreaks from 2010 through the present,
click here.

Photo of the Foundation Farm in Oregon

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