Minnesota state officials say they’ve made good progress in finding the source of a potentially deadly strain of E. coli O157:H7 that has sickened 5 people, four of whom drank raw milk from a dairy near Gibbon, Minn.

Raw milk is milk that hasn’t been pasteurized to kill harmful pathogens.

According to a June 3 press release from the state’s Agriculture and Health departments, laboratory test results from samples taken from the Hartmann dairy farm last week have provided additional evidence that point to the dairy as the source of the same E. coli strain that sickened a handful of Minnesotans after they consumed unpasteurized or other dairy products from the farm.

This is the first time this particular strain of E. coli has been found in Minnesota, said state officials.  

minnesota-raw-milk-statute.jpgThis update from the departments follows on the heels of last week’s news about four cases of E. coli–three of which were linked to the Hartmann dairy farm. The latest case makes five cases in all so far, although health officials say there could be more to come since it can take up to 2 weeks for E. coli to surface.  

One of the five cases was a toddler who had been hospitalized with potentially deadly complications of E. coli. During yesterday’s conference call with reporters, state officials said the toddler was released from the hospital on June 2. The fifth case was a young child who was not hospitalized.  

Assistant State Epidemiologist Richard Danila said that of the 5 cases, four have a definitive history with the dairy farm, and the other case is still under investigation.   

Two of the five people who came down with E. coli are toddlers, two are school-age children, and one is an adult in his 70s.  

The first case was reported on May 1.  

In conducting an investigation into the illnesses, which were scattered across the state, state health officials found that the only thing four of the ill people had in common was that they had consumed dairy products from the Hartmann farm.  

Danila said that eight of  the samples collected at the farm last week tested positive for the same definitive DNA fingerprint found in all of the ill patients.  

The samples that tested positive were taken from three animals and from five different parts of the farm.  

In addition, cheese samples collected from the farm contained another form of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, which Nicole Neeser, program manager for the Agriculture Department’s Dairy, Meat and Poultry Inspection Program, said demonstrates that “an ongoing pathway of contamination existed on the farm.”

“This clearly implicates the farm as the source of the bacteria,” Neeser said.

The Hartmanns have been advised not to talk with reporters about the case.

According to a recent statement from the Hartmann family and its attorney, the family has taken “great care for more than 15 years to provide wholesome and nutritious products to private individuals who choose to consume the farm’s natural foods, produced without dependence upon pesticides, herbicides, antibiotic, or genetically modified grains.”  

When asked what the departments’ future plans for the farm are, Neeser said that department staff members are collecting additional evidence, which could result in criminal or civil penalties.  

However, when asked if any traces of the E. coli strain that caused the illnesses had been found in cheese or milk samples from the farm, Neeser said they had not.   

But epidemiologist Danila pointed out that in most foodborne illness outbreaks, the food or milk that has made people ill has usually been consumed by the time test samples are taken.  

Nevertheless, Danila said that the epidemiological evidence linking the farm’s dairy products with the illnesses is “solid and strong.”  

When a reporter asked about cases in which pasteurized milk has been implicated in cases of foodborne illnesses, Danila said that “almost always,” those cases have involved contamination of the milk after it had been pasteurized.  

raw-milk-8-featured.jpgIn addition to the cases linked to the Hartmann farm, the state’s Health Department is investigating several other illnesses with a connection to products from the farm.   

The Agriculture Department has also embargoed dairy products on the farm, thus prohibiting movement or release of the embargoed products off the farm.  

But under state law, the dairy is still allowed to sell raw milk to customers who come to the farm to buy it for their own personal use, Neeser said during the conference call.  

In 2001, the Hartmann farm lost its Grade A dairy license due to what state officials describe as “generally unsanitary conditions” in the milking parlor.  

But under state law, unlicensed farms are still free to sell their products on the farm as long as nothing has been added to them. Ice cream and cheese would be examples of products that have had something added to them.  

Under current state policy, unlicensed dairies are not inspected. But during the conference call, Neeser said state officials may consider re-examining this policy in light of the recent E. coli illnesses.  

State officials also said that they know that at least one of the families involved in this case picked up raw milk produced at the Hartmann dairy at a drop-off point.   

Distributing milk at drop-off points is illegal under Minnesota state law.

In 2004, the Agriculture Department set up a sting operation that caught someone from the Hartmann dairy farm selling the farm’s raw milk at a drop-off point. However, the state’s criminal system declined to take the case to court.

With this recent cluster of E. coli cases, the question of whether the state would consider drafting legislation to change state law and/or regulations pertaining to raw milk has produced various reactions.

“We’re keeping an eye on this,” said Dr. Heidi Kassenborg, DVM, director of the Agriculture Department’s Dairy and Food Division. “The Agriculture commissioner and the legislators will probably be having a conversation about it during the next legislative session.”

In an email to Food Safety News, Rep. Al Juhnke, District 13B, chair of the Agriculture Committee, said he had no plans to propose updated rules on raw milk at this time.

“I will visit with our state’s dairy producers to get a feel for their needs in this area,” he said. “We do not return to session until January of 2011. This will give ample opportunity for those with an interest in this to weigh in.”  

Between 1973 and 1992, 46 outbreaks associated with raw milk consumption were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An additional 45 outbreaks were reported to CDC between 1998 and May 2005 accounting for 1,007 illnesses, 104 hospitalizations, and two deaths.  

Anyone who has become ill after consuming dairy products from the Hartmanns’ farm is urged to consult his or her healthcare provider. The Minnesota Department of Health is also asking that they call the agency at 651-201-5414.  

For more information about raw milk, go to “Real Raw Milk Facts,” www.realrawmilkfacts.com