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17 months later — State hopes to complete outbreak report

Virginia did not alert general public to E. coli outbreak traced to raw milk in March 2016

Even though the state has standing warnings about the risk of infections from bacteria in raw milk, Virginia officials did not alert the general public to an E. coli outbreak in March 2016 that sickened at least 14 people — a dozen of them children.

This week, 17 months after the outbreak, public health officials expect to complete their report on the incident, according to a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Health. The implicated milk was from Golden Valley Guernseys dairy, which sent a letter to members of its herd-share operation alerting them to the illnesses at the time.

Of the 14 confirmed E. coli victims, half had symptoms so severe that they required hospitalization. Three developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can lead to life-threatening kidney failure and often necessitates transplants.

The state health department’s Rappahannock-Rapidan Health District office did not make a public announcement about the outbreak at the time because the general public did not have access to the milk, District Director Dr. Wade Kartchner told Food Safety News.

“Consideration was given to putting out a broad public notice, but the nature of the herd-share programs are such that we were confident that we would be able to effectively reach those who were truly at risk of illness,” Kartchner said. “… it is not quite the same situation as a restaurant outbreak where the public at large may be exposed.”

In Virginia, only people who own a share of a dairy cow or herd can legally receive unpasteurized milk. Retail sales of unpasteurized milk are prohibited in the state. Federal prohibits the interstate transportation and sale of unpasteurized, or so-called raw milk, because of the dangers of pathogens.

Although herd-share laws allow people access to raw milk in Virginia, the state’s health department joins other state and federal agencies in strongly warning against the consumption of raw milk or other unpasteurized dairy products.

Similar to long-standing warnings from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Virginia Department of Health specifically urges people to avoid serving raw milk to children.

“Realize that the risk of drinking raw milk far outweighs any reward you could obtain from consuming it. There are a plethora of bacteria that could cause harm to you and your family, including: Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli, Campylobacter, Salmonella, or Listeria,” according to the Virginia health department website.

“Young children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems have a greater chance of getting ill from drinking raw milk. This doesn’t mean that anyone else is any less susceptible to the dangers of raw milk, but it certainly means to steer clear of serving it to your children.”

The dangers of raw milk range from gastrointestinal issues like diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach cramps to more serious problems including kidney failure, chronic illnesses, paralysis and possibly death, according to the Virginia health department.

The department also addresses a common misconception about certain dairy cows being safer than others.

“Even the healthiest, grass-fed, ‘organic’ cows can carry disease and bacteria without ever knowing it from their appearance. The best of sanitary conditions cannot provide assurance that (unpasteurized) milk is free of contaminates,” according to the state health department website.

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