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Raw milk dairy out of time to appeal retail license suspension

Unless it’s in the mail, the owners of Pride & Joy Dairy missed the deadline yesterday to respond to Washington state’s suspension of their license to sell raw milk for the retail market.

Two Salmonella illnesses have been traced to the dairy using genetic testing, but the dairy owners have said they do not believe their milk is responsible for making anyone sick, ever. They refused to recall their unpasteurized milk Sept. 28 when state officials notified them laboratory tests showed Salmonella bacteria in it.

In an Oct. 6 suspension notice, the Washington State Department of Agriculture told the dairy owners, Allen Voortman and Cheryl Voortman, they had until end of business Oct. 16 to respond.

“The dairy has until the end of the day to let us know if they plan to appeal the suspension, but they could also mail it, in which case it just has to be postmarked by today,” department spokesman Hector Castro confirmed Monday afternoon. As of the end of business, the department had not received any responses by email or fax.

An attorney who is assisting the Voortmans, but not representing them, told Food Safety News on Monday that the dairy’s deadline to respond was “at least a couple of weeks from now.”

The same attorney contacted Food Safety News on Oct. 11 on behalf of the Voortmans. He said the couple, as well as their daughter and son-in-law Cindy Umipig and Ricky Umipig, had asked him to request that no one from Food Safety News ever attempt to contact them again. He said there is no other official spokesperson for the dairy, including himself, as he is just assisting the family.

The dairy can’t legally resume sales of unpasteurized milk unless the owners respond to the state’s suspension notice, take action to make any necessary corrections and pass state inspection. They can still produce milk and sell it to processors for pasteurization, though. However, that won’t generate anywhere near the revenue for the Voortmans that raw milk does. In the few states that allow retail sales of raw milk, it is not unusual to see prices of $14 per gallon.

“The next step, if the dairy would like to have the license suspension lifted, is for them to provide us with their plan for addressing the pathogens we have found in their product,” Castro told Food Safety News on Oct. 10.

State stands its scientific ground
This fall’s bacteria battle marks the second time this year that state tests have showed bacteria in the Pride & Joy raw milk. It is also the second time the Voortmans and their family members have insisted their raw milk is clear of pathogens.

The dairy owners contend the state has unfairly targeted them and that testing by an independent laboratory in Idaho of multiple samples were “negative” for Salmonella. As in February when state tests showed E. coli in the Pride & Joy milk, the dairy owners have suggested the state’s lab work was flawed and/or that the milk could have become contaminated after it left the farm and is therefore not their responsibility.

Washington health and agriculture investigators are standing by their test results.

The state Department of Health confirmed that the rare strain of Salmonella Dublin found by the agriculture department’s routine testing program this fall is a match for the strain that infected two people earlier this year. Both of those victims reported drinking Pride & Joy raw milk before becoming sick early this year.

As for the independent testing referenced by the dairy owners, the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) investigators say just because one test doesn’t find pathogens, it doesn’t mean an entire batch of raw milk — or any other food — is free of pathogens.

“It is inaccurate to say that the results of any pathogen testing are ‘negative.’ Our lab, like most accredited regulatory laboratories, reports results on pathogen tests as either ‘not found’ or ‘detected.’ This is because a test that does not find pathogens in a sample is not a guarantee that no pathogens are present, only that they were ‘not found,’ ” according to the WSDA.

“Finding the pathogens in a sample depends on many factors, including the level of pathogens present in the product. The pathogens are individual organisms and not homogenous, or mixed, throughout the product. Generally speaking, the more pathogens (that) are present, the higher the chances are that testing will detect them.”

Although they continue to dispute the state’s lab results, the Pride & Joy owners did recall a batch of their unpasteurized milk from retailers — without notifying the state or the public at large — a day after they refused the state’s request for a recall.

Advice to consumers
Anyone who has consumed Pride & Joy organic, raw milk and developed symptoms of Salmonella infection should immediately seek medical attention and tell their doctors about the possible exposure to the bacteria. Symptoms usually begin within hours, but can take up to two weeks to develop in some people.

Symptoms can include fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and, in some cases, arterial infections, endocarditis and arthritis.

“Unpasteurized ‘raw’ milk can carry harmful bacteria and germs. Foodborne illnesses are possible from many different foods; however, raw milk is one of the riskiest,” said Dr. Scott Lindquist, Washington state communicable disease epidemiologist.

Washington state also officials referenced information from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to back up their warnings. According to the CDC, states that allow the sale of raw milk have more raw milk-related illness outbreaks than states that prohibit raw milk sales. Federal law prohibits the sale of unpasteurized milk across state lines.

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