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Girl Fights E. Coli from Raw Milk as Medical Bills Mount

Almost lost in the flurry of “food-freedom” comments on the Facebook page of an eastern Tennessee raw-milk dairy farm that has been linked to an E. coli outbreak is the plight of five-year-old Maddie Powell, who remains hospitalized after developing hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a potentially fatal kidney disease associated with severe E. coli infections.

Maddie is one of nine children, all younger than seven, who were sickened with E. coli that state health officials have linked to a cowshare operated by the McBee Dairy Farm near Knoxville, TN. Besides Maddie, two of the nine children also developed HUS but have recovered enough to go home.

Raw milk is milk that hasn’t been pasteurized to kill harmful and, at times, deadly, pathogens such as E. coli, Listeria, Salmonella and Campylobacter. While raw-milk advocates believe it helps cure ailments such as asthma and various allergies, food-safety experts discount those claims as anecdotal and not based on science. They also warn of the serious risks to human health, including death, associated with its consumption.

Maddie, who was admitted to the hospital on Oct. 29, has been on dialysis since Oct. 30. So far, she has had six blood transfusions, one transfusion of platelets (blood cells that help stop bleeding), and two surgeries, with another surgery planned to get her off dialysis.

In a Nov. 17 email, Maddie’s mother, Cassie Powell, told Food Safety News that she had some good news to share: “No more dialysis!! We are moving out of ICU today and he (the doctor) projects another week in hospital.”

Not just emotionally, but also financially, it has been a severe strain on the family, with medical bills mounting up to more than $125,000 in just two weeks. With another week in the hospital anticipated, the expenses will climb higher yet.

Powell listed some of the costs:

  • Room: $6,000 per day for the hospital room. (“It was at $77,000 just for the room alone so far,” Powell said in a Nov. 12 email.)
  • Blood: $700 per transfusion. (Powell said she’s learned that it takes 40 donors to make up just one transfusion.)
  • Platelets: $2,000.
  • Chemistry: $10,000.

In addition to these expenses, Powell has had to take unpaid time off from work, and she has depleted all of her vacation time. Her husband, Scott, has to work as he has no sick time he can take.

“I am trying to work some during the week to keep things going so I have some income coming in,” Powell said, who noted that she has only been home three times since Maddie was admitted to the hospital. She stays with the little girl all night, and her parents come to stay with her in the afternoon.

Besides Maddie, the Powells have four other children.

Fortunately, the family does have insurance, but they don’t know what the final medical costs will be.

“Financially, it’s still up in the air,” Powell said. “We don’t know how we’ll fare.”

A friend, Wendy Morales, who is running the “Praying for Maddie” Facebook page, has set Maddie up with Medic Regional Blood Center to receive credit for any blood donated in her name. Donors  just have to provide the child’s full name, which is Madison Delilah Powell, and say that she is in East Tennessee Children’s Hospital.

Although the Powells have not asked for donations to help with medical expenses, information friends have posted on the website suggest that donations can be made through this PayPal link.

Almost 1,000 people, many calling themselves “Prayer Warriors,” have made friends with Maddie on the Facebook page. Children at Maddie’s school have held a prayer vigil for her, and a benefit was to be held at her school. Her father said he has been overwhelmed by all the emotional support people have extended to the family.

In addition, two mothers, Mary McGonigle and Jill Brown, whose children developed HUS from drinking raw milk in separate E. coli outbreaks — one in California and the other in Oregon — have been in touch with Powell so she won’t feel so alone as she goes through this overwhelming ordeal.

Referring to McGonigle and Brown’s decision to reach out to her, Powell said, “To talk with other people who have been through this — it calms you. I had never even heard of HUS until this happened.”

Food-safety attorney Bill Marler, who publishes Food Safety News, confirmed that medical costs associated with E. coli and HUS can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars. He cited one young patient whose medical bills came to $250,000 before she was discharged. Another example he gave was a young boy whose medical bills came to more than $450,000.

The risks of raw milk

Dairy farmer Marcie McBee, who operates the cowshare that provided the raw milk that Maddie drank, told Food Safety News that she informs cowshare members of the risks associated with raw milk.

Even so, she said that, in the bigger scheme of things, “It breaks down to your choice of freedom of whether you want to drink raw milk or not.”

She also pointed out that because the milk comes from a cowshare, the members own the cow, and therefore they’re not technically buying milk from the dairy.

When it comes to raw milk and the freedom of choice, Tennessee Deputy State Epidemiologist John Dunn said that people may have the right to drink and eat what they want, but because children are particularly vulnerable to foodborne illnesses such as E. coli, parents should take that vulnerability into account.

Powell said that she and her husband knew there were risks associated with raw milk.

“To us, it wasn’t any more dangerous than going to the store and buying spinach,” she said. (In 2006, an  E. coli outbreak linked to raw spinach infected 199 persons in 26 states and killed three people.) “But this experience with raw milk has been sobering for us.”

Powell said her family had decided to switch to raw milk because they didn’t like the way big dairies operate.

“We wanted to avoid the chemical imprint in our bodies,” she said, referring to the genetically modified grains fed to the cows and medications such as antibiotics administered to the cows.

But from now on, she said, her family will buy lightly pasteurized milk — milk that been heated to a lower, but safe temperature, and kept at that temperature for 30 minutes, a process that kills harmful pathogens — from Cruze Farm, a dairy farm in the Knoxville area.

“We won’t go back to raw milk,” she said.

When speaking of the McBee Dairy Farm where they got the raw milk that has been linked to the E. coli that sickened her daughter, Powell said that they don’t blame the McBees.

“We know it wasn’t intentional on their part,” she said. “Marcie (McBee) is heartbroken about this, too.”

Up and running again

Last week, the state allowed the McBee Dairy Farm to begin offering its milk to its cowshare members again. In giving the dairy the green light, health officials said that the outbreak, which likely began in early October, is over since no new cases had been reported.

In addition, the most recent testing of raw-milk samples from the dairy indicated that the milk was not contaminated — at least when the samples were taken.

However, even though several raw milk samples tested negative for E. coli O157, one raw-milk sample obtained from a consumer and several manure samples collected from the farm revealed the presence of DNA for the toxin produced by the E. coli strain that causes HUS, according to a press release from the state.

Tennessee Deputy State Epidemiologist Dunn told Food Safety News that the fact that all of the children who became ill drank raw milk from the dairy is “a pretty clear signal about the source.”

“The data and exposure information is very compelling,” he said.

Before the cease-and-desist order on the dairy could be lifted, Faith Critzer, University of Tennessee Agriculture Extension Office’s food safety expert in dairy-farm best practices, visited the farm and gave McBee some pointers on how she could improve the safeguards the dairy already had in place. (The dairy had been a commercial Grade A dairy before it began its cowshare operation.)

For Mark McAfee, owner of Fresno-based Organic Pastures, the largest raw-milk dairy in the nation, this recent outbreak in eastern Tennessee adds to his frustration over the lack of solid, science-based information about the safety risks associated with raw milk and how to prevent them.

Pointing out that McBee comes from a commercial Grade A dairy background, McAfee said that, before starting up the cowshare operation, McBee had never had to worry about coliform bacteria or pathogens that can make people sick. (In Tennessee, milk from commercial dairy farms is required to be pasteurized.)

“But, as a raw-milk producer for people, this is a central concern,” he said.

Taking a broader view of the situation, McAfee said that the outbreak illustrates the problem with a “free-for-all legalization of raw milk or cowshares without training or standards.”

“This is like being a blindfolded captain of a huge ship at night with no moon,” he said, referring to the McBee’s cowshare operation.

In an attempt to establish food-safety standards for raw-milk dairies, McAfee helped launched the Raw Milk Institute in September 2011.

Not that McAfee hasn’t had his own problems with outbreaks and recalls. As of February 2013, his dairy has been involved in seven recalls.

Even so, McAfee has faith that the raw-milk industry is evolving, with more and more science-based information to tap into.

“We’ve got to work together and create safe food,” he told Food Safety News in an earlier interview. “It’s usurping the cause if you’re only thinking about your freedom. Freedom and food safety are connected. I’m free as long as I produce safe milk.”

According to information from the Tennessee Department of Health, raw milk and other unpasteurized dairy products are inherently risky to consumers. They can contain harmful bacteria, such as E. coli O157. These bacteria can cause severe diarrhea and even life-threatening complications. While it is possible to get sick from many other foods, raw milk is one of the riskiest. Infants and young children are among those with the greatest risk of illness from raw milk. Pasteurization is the only way to kill many of the bacteria in milk that can make people sick.

Go to Real Raw Milk Facts for information and questions and answers about raw milk.

© Food Safety News
  • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

    Excellent coverage.

    A difficult story because I feel for the family with the sick child, but I’m also unhappy that they’re defending the very farm that got their child sick. Their child getting sick wasn’t an aberration–when children _don’t_ get sick from raw milk, that’s the aberration.

    When the hell are people going to wake up? Do they feel they’re privileged in life, and they’ll never get sick, their kids will never get sick?

    Freedom? Exactly how much did it cost taxpayers to investigate these foodborne illness outbreaks? Seems like we’re paying the price for their “food freedom”.

    Again, I feel badly for the family, and awful for that poor little child. But I’m also pissed that this had to happen because of superstition.

    • WHO

      Food, any kind has risk. Raw milk farms, if run properly (not thru shares) are some of the most heavily inspected out there, and many often go through a multitude of inspections on their own dime.
      How come nobody jumps on the anti-* bandwagon when spinach, cantaloupe, strawberries, lettuce, chicken, beef, hot dogs, etc. make people sick (quite often).
      If this child had gotten sick off of a hot dog (quite common) would people be pissed off at the parent for feeding her a hot dog? Certainly there is high risk associated with deli meats and prepared foods.
      Don’t fool yourself into believing pasteurization makes milk perfectly safe. It doesn’t. And the handling of food after is quite often the culprit, not the food itself.
      In terms of costs, well that’s part of the whole ballgame called food safety. If you don’t want risks and for “taxpayers” to pay for investigation after the fact (because it appears we as a country prefer to starve things like FDA and USDA from proper inspections) then don’t eat. Food is NEVER 100% safe. Ever.

      • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

        There is no healthful advantage to raw milk, but there is significant risk.

        Only an idiot would focus on what doesn’t exist (nonexistent nutritional advantage) and completely disregard what does (food safety risk).

        Not all foods can be made safer, but when there’s a _proven_ technique that increases the safety of a specific food, what can we think of a people who not only willingly turn their back on the increased safety, but do everything in their power to downplay the risks associated with food not processed safely?

        And then encourage the giving of said food to children. Children.

        Now, how many foodborne illness outbreaks has McAfee had? And he’s supposed to be the best?

        • Who

          There is no healthful advantage to hot dogs, deli meats, etc.
          There are additional proven methods to make milk, eggs, chicken safe. It’s called making sure the animal is healthy and taken care of. Look at all the food recalls recently for Foster Farms Chicken. We give children Foster Farm Chicken nuggets.
          How do you know anyone encouraged those parents to give their child the milk. Certainly their immune systems are not fully developed yet, so of course that is an additional risk parents probably should not be taking. I can agree with you on that point.

        • Smarter than U

          “There is no healthful advantage to raw milk.” Simply not true. You can’t tell people who feel better after switching to raw milk that they don’t! That’s a little arrogant, don’t you think? And have you ever wondered why no major dairy producer has ever conducted a scientific study to prove the raw milk promoters wrong once and for all? Because they can’t, and they know it.

    • Smarter than U

      Did you read the story a few years back about the little boy that died from a burger at Jack-in-the-Box? Did you rail against people for eating beef? The fact of the matter is, raw dairy products account for a minuscule number of food borne illnesses compared to all other types of food, less than 1% as a matter of fact.

  • Ben

    Cows shit in milk is the same as cow shit in ground beef. If you sell raw milk produced under insanitary conditions, you are a criminal! If a mother feed their innocent children with raw milk, undercooked hamburger or any other undercooked food, she should be prosecuted too.
    My partner is sick for 8 weeks from a food poisoning he got from a fancy restaurant and we know what this means! I have no excuse for anybody who produces food and makes people sick.
    It makes me even more sick when I read such a cynical statement: “She also pointed out that because the milk comes from a cowshare, the members own the cow, and therefore they’re not technically buying milk from the dairy.”
    Yes the members own the cows, who does the milking? Who does the sanitation or hasn’t done it?

    • Smarter than U

      You sound a little sanctimonious. Maybe you should be prosecuted for taking for partner to that restaurant? Hmmmm?

  • Who

    Food is dangerous, especially if handled inappropriately. This story is highlighted yet there are several recalls and issues with food that don’t seem to get the same chest thumping anger as from Shelley.

    Would there be as much pissed off-ness if this little lady got sick from a hot dog (a huge source of food borne illness)?

    The truth is, there are a lot of pathogens in any food (produce, chicken, eggs, etc.) and they can all make us sick and can even kill us. Pasteurization is no guarantee of safety. Certainly it will kill pathogens, yet those pathogens are far more prevalent in mass produced, mass handled milk where the cows are not cared for.

    If you know your farmer, know where you food comes from, it’s a good thing.

    I know a raw milk, small dairy farmer (where we purchase… for almost three years now). His milk gets tested by the Feds monthly, and they send it to a local lab weekly on their own dime for testing. The big guys certainly don’t. But hey, they heat their milk so all is good right?He’s got a lot at stake because it’s part of his livelihood, and his family drinks the milk. The cows are pastured guernsey’s and very well taken care of. I’ve seen his operation.

    • LouWho

      Pasteurization is a PROVEN form of creating safe milk, no matter how many times you say it isn’t.
      What is your deal with Hot Dogs? Can you provide where this “knowledge” comes from? They’re supposed to be cooked, and are usually pre-cooked so I really don’t know what you’re on about.
      Large farms also make their livelihood from the items they produce. Just because their scale is bigger doesn’t mean that everything changes. I know that flies in the face of your pretty little – my milk comes from a small farm and that means it’s better theory – but perception is not fact even if you refuse to understand that.
      It is good to know where you milk (and food) comes from. I have looked into things like that, vs. having to be told by the producer and assuming those that don’t put it on their labels or stand in the supermarket and tell me must be hiding something from me and are therefore bad. I know multiple SMALL farmers that produce milk for the local co-op who then pasteurizes the milk and only sells it within the state, which I purchase and has never once made me sick.

  • Beezer Moolji

    Thanks for reporting on this, and I’m glad that all families involved are doing well. I hope this is taken as a wakeup call to the real risks of drinking unpasteurized milk. Pasteurization is a victim of its success similar to vaccines – we don’t see so many children with measles or polio, so we tend to forget the importance of these vaccines. We don’t need an epidemic of hemolytic uremic syndrome and kidney failure the same way we have had epidemics of measles in the past decade due to the mistaken notion that the MMR vaccine caused autism. Now that the MMR/autism issue has been put to rest, it seems like this will be the next battle we will have to deal with. I’m a pediatrican and have written about this story more extensively on my blog – http://beezermoolji.com/blog/2013/11/raw-milk-a-pediatricians-perspective – I’ll keep following up on this and other related stories.

  • Who

    I rarely eat raw produce. Most Americans cook their produce. But okay.

  • Loren Eaton

    From their website:
    At McBee Dairy Farm our purpose is to educate people about the difference between monoculture farming and polycultural farming. We also strive to produce our products the way God has intended them to be…..and
    “I will instruct you and teach you in the
    way you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you.” (Psalm 32:8)
    I don’t care how heartbroken they are, these people are dangerous. Natural does not equal safe. It is same nonsense we hear about organic farming. Yet I’m quite sure these people would be happy to invoke the precautionary principle where BIG AG is concerned.

  • Mark mcafee

    Correct data would be helpful. 7 recalls were listed as related to OPDC in ca. That is not correct. Only two of the recalls we’re associated with illness.

    I never want another recall again. That is why I founded the raw milk institute and so far so good. The 5 farmers that are listed by RAWMI have excellent test numbers and written published food safety plans that work very well.

    As far as the benefits of raw milk are concerned there are at least 7 internationally peer reviewed and published studies showing huge benefits for : asthma and allergies, not to mention life long resistance to asthma when pregnant moms drink raw milk. By the way…the CDC has zero illnesses from listeria related to raw fluid milk!

    When a mind is blocked no learning can take place. Nine children die every day in America from Asthma. Raw milk has killed zero since 1972 when the CDC started collecting data. Pasteurized milk has killed at least 77.

    What we need are good Standards for raw milk safety.

  • William K. Murphy

    “Pointing out that McBee comes from a commercial Grade A dairy background,”

    I think that we have pinpointed the source of the problem right here. McBee was familiar with the production of industrial milk intended for pasteurization and processing (“IPP”). She may have brought these practices into the production of raw milk, not realizing that producing *fresh milk for direct human consumption* requires an entirely different set of skills. This is where citizens are often put at risk: when industrial farmers begin producing raw milk because they see a market for the product. Consumers want fresh milk, which is produced by methods which heighten safety. They do not want raw industrial milk.

    The article headline should be “Girl fights E-Coli from Industrial Milk…”

    Fresh milk consumers want food safety, not just “food freedom.” They trust fresh milk farmers to have the expertise to produce a safe and nutritious product. Farmer education is vital, but so is consumer education on how to choose a farm is vitally important, so that consumers are not exploited by farmers who come from industrial backgrounds and offer unsafe milk as if it were safe.

    The McBees have a moral obligation to pay the medical costs of this young girl and every other child who has become ill from this farm. I am a firm fresh milk supporter, but I do not approve of unsafe, dirty farms which cause these illnesses. Let’s look to Europe for safe fresh milk farming practices.