The strain of E. coli that caused nine children to become ill after drinking raw milk obtained from McBee Dairy Farm near Knoxville, Tenn., has been matched to animal waste collected at the dairy, according to a Thursday press release from the Tennessee Health Department.
Five of the nine children, all younger than seven, required hospitalization, and three developed a severe kidney problem known as hemolytic uremic syndrome.
Raw milk 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 it.
The department’s investigation involved an on-site inspection of the farm (McBee Dairy Farm), interviews of 88 households that purchased milk from the farm, and laboratory analysis of samples and materials to compare bacterial strains. Officials from the Knox County Health Department have also been involved in the investigation and patient outreach efforts.
“This outbreak points out, again, the serious risks associated with drinking unpasteurized or ‘raw’ milk,” said TDH Commissioner John Dreyzehner, M.D., MPH. “While people with stronger immune systems may be able to overcome the bacteria found in raw milk, children, older people, pregnant women and those with health conditions can be seriously harmed by bacteria in non-pasteurized milk products and should not consume them.”
“Milk from the healthiest-appearing cows in the cleanest dairy operations can still contain deadly microorganisms,” said TDH State Epidemiologist Tim Jones, M.D. “Pasteurization, which simply involves heating the milk, kills these microorganisms and leaves the healthy nutrients. Those who consume raw milk are playing Russian roulette with their health; the glass they drink today may not have deadly microorganisms, but the one they drink tomorrow may cause serious health problems or even death.”
The McBee Dairy Farm operates a cowshare program in which the customers own shares in the cows and therefore also own the milk. Under this sort of arrangement, which state officials refer to as a “legal loophole,” the dairy is technically not selling the milk.
Tom Womack, spokesman for the state’s Agriculture Department, said the department doesn’t know how many cowshares there are in Tennessee because it doesn’t track them, nor does it regulate them.
In an email to Food Safety News, dairy farmer Marcie McBee said that the dairy has regular testing in place now that “will show us if we have clean milk.”
Even so, she said regular testing “still does not make the milk 100 percent safe, as no living food is 100 percent protected from having a bacteria enter it.”
McBee also reiterated her belief that people should be free to choose what food and milk they eat and drink.
“My customers and I feel that we are well-informed and able to make our own decisions about the food we consume,” she said.
McBee also pointed to what she believes is the state’s failure in informing them about what they could have been doing to prevent E. coli from getting into their milk, at least as much as possible.
“The health department has done nothing to help us improve or locate a problem here,” she said. “We have not been informed on any testing that we could have done or could incorporate to detect or prevent a problem.”
She said that, in the future, she hopes to be able to work with the university or the health department to help them and the farmers connect in better ways — “ways that are beneficial to the health of the public, the farm, and the government.”
Womack said that while the safety of raw milk can be improved through good practices, the risk of contamination with potentially deadly pathogens cannot be eliminated altogether.
“Even the best practices and best inspection and sampling programs can give the unsuspecting public a false sense of security with unpasteurized milk and milk products,” he said. “While educational programs and technical resources for farmers are good and encouraged, they simply cannot give the assurance that only pasteurization can provide.”
Shelley Walker, spokesperson for the state’s Health Department, said that the investigation of this case included a strong recommendation to the dairy owners that they engage a consultant to evaluate their operation.
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