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Parents urged to check their homes for raw milk

Officials double down on public warning about French Broad raw milk amidst E. coli outbreak

Health officials in Tennessee have repeated their public warning against drinking unpasteurized milk from French Broad Farm, confirming Thursday that more than 10 children are sick with infections from E. coli. The majority of the children were given raw milk from the farm before becoming sick.

The dairy has stopped distributing milk, according to a statement from the Knox County Health Department (KCHD). The health department did not report when French Broad stopped distribution. The department began receiving reports “last week” about children with infections from E. coli O157:H7.

In their public warning, county health officials urged people to check their homes for French Broad unpasteurized, raw dairy products.

“… KCHD continues to advise the public not to consume raw milk or any other unpasteurized products they may have from the farm; this includes disposing of all raw milk and unpasteurized products they may have from this farm,” the public warning states.

Investigators and epidemiologists continue their search for a confirmed source for the potentially deadly bacteria, but little is known for sure at this point, except that at least four children are in intensive care units with kidney failure.

“Environmental samples, milk and manure, have been collected for testing. The timeline for results is unknown. The farm is not currently distributing milk,” according to the county health department update Thursday.

The department is working on the investigation in conjunction with the Tennessee Department of Human Services. In addition to the raw dairy products from French Broad, the public health agencies are also looking at a day care facility, A Kids Place Inc. “Several other cases” of E. coli infections have been confirmed among children in the facility’s “Baby House” for toddlers.

A statement from A Kids Place reports the “Baby House” was closed and cleaned. However, state health officials had ordered the entire multi-building facility closed on Tuesday. They doubled down on that order Thursday when they discovered the business was still open. The children were sent home and the center closed until further notice.

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It was not immediately known whether any of the infected children from the day care center had been given unpasteurized milk from Broad Farm before becoming sick. Another possible of E. coli bacteria for the children at Kids Place could be animals kept on the property.

“During the investigation, exposure to ruminant farm animals was identified as a potential source of infection,” the county health department reported. “… by taking infection control steps, the imminent health threat has been mitigated.”

As with the dairy that produced the implicated raw milk, public health officials collected environmental samples from A Kids Place. They also took samples from animals. County officials said in the warning that they did not know when test results would be available. 

The Tennessee health department issued a statement indicating the entire day care center will remain closed until there is documentation that E. coli and other pathogens are not present.

Animals at A Kids Place are not part of an adjacent animal agriculture operation, according to a statement from the day care business.

“Livestock are located on an adjacent private farm, but the children in our care do not interact with those animals as part of our activities,” the statement said.

“We do have dogs, goats and ducks that are contained in an area on our property, and we have contacted agricultural experts to examine those animals. Children in the Baby House do not interact with any animals in our programs.”

Long-standing warnings, little regulation
For years local, state and federal public health and agriculture departments have been warning the public against drinking unpasteurized milk and eating products made from it. 

The warnings stem from the same things that drove Louis Pasteur to invent pasteurization in the 1800s. Bacteria, viruses, parasites and other pathogens that can sicken and kill people are frequently found in unpasteurized dairy products.

Washington state’s raw milk products must carry this warning label.

“Raw milk and other unpasteurized products can contain harmful bacteria, including E. coli 0157. While it is possible to get sick from many other foods, raw milk is one of the riskiest,” according to the Knox County Health Department warning.

“E. coli can also be found in the feces of cattle, goats, sheep and other ruminant animals. Historically, the major source for human illness is cattle, which can carry E. coli 0157 and show no signs of illness. These bacteria, however, can cause severe diarrhea and even life-threatening complications for humans, especially children, older adults, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems.”

It is against federal law to sell unpasteurized dairy products across state lines. Many states do not allow any sale or distribution of raw milk. Some allow on-farm sales and others, such as California, allow retail sales of raw dairy products. Warning labels are required on all raw milk sold in California and some other states, but not all of them.

In Tennessee and a few other states, selling or distributing raw milk and products made with it is prohibited — except for people who operate cow-share dairies. Referred to as herd-share co-operatives in some states, the concept for such businesses is for dairy operators to charge people for shares of a dairy cow or herd. Share holders who receive the raw dairy products are prohibited from distributing or selling to anyone else.

Little regulatory ink is on the books in most states where cow-share operations are allowed. Tennessee is one of those states. There isn’t anything in the state’s cow-share statute defining what rights or responsibilities share holders have, except for payments to the dairy.

Dairies in Tennessee that sell pasteurized milk and other products are required to go through licensing, certification and submit to regular inspections and testing. Raw milk dairies are not subject to any licensing, certification, inspections or routine testing requirements.

The state agriculture department, which in many states is charged with enforcing whatever raw milk laws are on the books, is not involved with unpasteurized dairy products at all. Corrine Gould, a public information officer with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, said the department is not charged with any responsibilities or in any way in terms of raw milk.

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