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Health director says all outbreak victims drank raw milk

County officials rescinded their request that French Broad Farm stop distributing unpasteurized milk even though they believe the dairy’s milk is the cause of an E. coli outbreak. The public health department continues to warn consumers against drinking raw milk from any dairy at any time.

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The Knox County (TN) Health Department reported Thursday that “there is no ongoing transmission,” which it cited as a key factor in the decision. Neither county nor state officials actually have any power to stop the dairy’s operations or distribution of unpasteurized, raw milk, as long as only members of its “cow-share” operation receive the milk.

County Health Director Dr. Martha Buchanan said that lack of public health authority is a problem because it means raw milk dairies are not subject to any health code standards, food safety standards, inspections or product testing. 

Buchanan also made it clear during an on-camera interview with a USA Today reporter on Thursday that the outbreak investigation leaves little doubt that raw milk from French Broad Farm is the source of the E. coli O157:H7 bacteria that has sickened at least a dozen children, four of whom developed kidney failure. 

Epidemiologists asked the children’s parents about other possible sources, including swimming and consumption of ground beef. Buchanan said some ate ground beef, but not from the same source. Others went swimming, but not at the same location.

“But when we got to raw milk — and that’s a standard question, asking about raw milk consumption in an E. coli outbreak — what we found was every one of those kids drank raw milk and every one of those kids got raw milk from this farm,” Buchanan told the USA Today reporter.

In previous news conferences and health department releases, public health officials have maintained that some of the sick children could have been exposed at a Kids Place child care center in Mascot, TN. The health department’s outbreak update on Thursday reiterated that point.

“While all potential sources remain under investigation, the evidence continues to suggest the cases are associated with two probable sources: consumption of raw milk and contact, either direct or indirect, with farm animals,” according to the news release. 

“KCHD is investigating any potential connections between these two likely sources. However, while it would be rare, it is possible these are two unrelated E. coli clusters occurring at the same time.”

In addition to lifting its unenforceable request that the dairy stop distribution, the county health department has lifted its request that the day care center temporarily close. As with the dairy, the county has no enforcement authority over child care facilities. But unlike raw milk dairies, Tennessee does have statutes regulating child care operations. The state has OK’d Kids Place to resume business.

Operators of French Broad Dairy and Kids Place Inc. have “fully cooperated” with the health department, according to the news release. The dairy provided officials with its list of “share holders” so those people could be contacted regarding possible illnesses. The businesses also allowed the county to collect samples for testing.

Test results from the dairy, the child care center, and outbreak victims are not yet available, and county officials said they don’t know when they will be.

All of the outbreak victims are children, according to the county health department, which has not released the number of sick people. Buchanan said the department has not been notified of any new victims since June 3.

A hospital in the Knoxville area, East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, has treated 12 children during the outbreak. The most recent child tot be admitted went into the hospital on Thursday. Several of the children are younger than 5 years old. 

As of Thursday seven children were still in East Tennessee Children’s Hospital. Four of them developed kidney failure and had to be admitted to intensive care units. Only one child remains in intensive care. 

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