“QUARANTINE IS LIFTED AND WE ARE OFF RECALL !!!!!!!!!!”
That was the “holiday” message on Organic Pasture Dairy’s Facebook page on Dec. 16 — 31 days after California’s Department of Food and Agriculture imposed a statewide quarantine on all the dairy’s raw milk and raw-milk products, except for aged cheese. During that time, the department conducted a rigorous testing regime in search of E. coli O157:H7 or other harmful bacteria in the dairy’s cows, milk, facilities and manure.
In humans, E. coli O157:H7 can cause serious digestive problems, kidney failure, or even death.
Raw milk is milk that has not been pasteurized to kill fecal pathogens such as E. coli O157:H7 that might get in the milk.
At 6 p.m. Dec. 16, the department hand delivered Organic Pastures’ co-owner Mark McAfee a notice informing him that his dairy’s raw milk and raw-milk products, with the exception of raw colostrum (the first milk from a cow after its calf has been born), had been released from the quarantine.
According to the news release issued that day from the department, the dairy had to meet all sanitation requirements and comply with food-safety regulations before the quarantine could be lifted.
The quarantine and recall of the dairy’s raw milk and raw-milk products were triggered in mid-November after the state’s Department of Public Health identified a cluster of five children in four different counties who had been infected from August through October with the same strain of E. coli. Although tests for E. coli in the milk in the familes’ homes after the children’s illnesses were confirmed turned up negative, interviews with the families of the children revealed that all of the children had consumed unpasteurized milk from Organic Pastures. Because the dairy’s raw milk was the only common exposure among the children, the department said concluded that the dairy was the likely source of the illnesses.
Three of the five children in the outbreak were hospitalized with hemolytic uremic syndrome, a serious condition that may lead to kidney failure. The recent news release from the state’s Department of of Food and Agriculture failed to mention the current condition of the children.
For Organic Pastures’ customers, the news on the dairy’s Facebook page that the dairy had passed the state’s requirements for cleanliness and food safety, and that it could resume distributing its products again, was cause for joy.
Peppered with comments that thanked both God (“Thank you, Lord”) and Santa Claus (“The best Christmas gift. Thank you, Santa”), the Facebook page featured a photo of one of the dairy’s colorful delivery trucks and tentative delivery dates to stores and buyers’ clubs.
“We have 18 trucks full steam ahead moving milk all over California,” McAfee told Food Safety News on Friday evening.
With a herd of 420 milk cows, Fresno-County-based Organic Pastures Dairy is the largest organic raw-milk dairy in the United States, selling about $145,000 of raw milk and raw-milk products each week.
During the quarantine, the dairy sold its milk to an organic dairy processor, resulting in an estimated loss to the dairy of $18,000 per day. It used the unaccustomed “downtime” renovating and rebuilding the creamery facilities, putting in new concrete floors, ceilings and drains, as well as installing a new bottle capper and filler at a cost of $250,000.
“We’ve even changed our milking protocol,” McAfee said. “We were made better by this process, and it paid off. Our plant received a 100 percent score from the department.”
Out in the marketplace, things were lively. McAfee said that some of the stores were sending in double orders in anticipation of a rush on the milk. And while the dairy lost two stores due to the recall, it has picked up 10 new customers.
Jimbo Someck, owner of Jimbos Naturally, a family-owned chain of four stores in San Diego County, told Food Safety News that once he heard that the state had given Organic Pastures the OK to start production again, he had his buyer place orders with the dairy.
“We have been receiving a lot of inquiries about this,” he said. “Raw milk is very popular. There’s a core group of customers that believes strongly in raw milk and raw-milk products.”
When the quarantine was lifted on Dec. 16, the dairy invited customers to come to the farm and buy milk there. Some of them brought along large coolers and purchased as much as 50 gallons at a time.
“They said they never wanted this to happen again — that they were going to freeze some of the milk because they wanted to make sure they always had some on hand,” said McAfee.
In another testament to the popularity of raw milk among raw-milk advocates, McAfee said that during the recall, people were shelling out $10 for a quart for raw milk from Claravale Farm in San Benito County.
“That’s $40 a gallon,” said McAfee in utter astonishment.
Stores typically sell half gallons of Organic Pastures’ milk for $7.50 to $8.50.
Maybe the Calves?
When asked about the children who became ill, McAfee said the outbreak linked to his dairy remains a puzzle, not just to him but also to state officials.
“How the hell it happened, we just don’t know,” he said.
As in previous interviews, he expressed sympathy for the children who became ill with E. coli infection.
“We don’t want kids to be sick,” he said.
Referring to the hundreds of kids that tour the dairy, he conjectured that perhaps the children contracted E. coli when they visited the calves.
“Calves and children love each other,” he said.
Although testing found no E. coli O157 at the main part of the dairy, McAfee said that it did detect some in the manure in the calf area. Based on that, Organic Pastures is completely revamping its farm tours and keeping the calf area fenced off and separated from the rest of the farm — a plan that includes different employees and different tractors for the calf area.
According to a University of California-Davis Veterinary Medicine Extension report, “Reducing Bacterial Hazards in Market Dairy Cattle,” E. Eoli O157 is “most easily found in weaned calves.”
Here to Stay
McAfee said that there’s no question in his mind that “raw milk is here to stay,” despite public health authorities’ warnings about its risks. “The California Department of Food and Agriculture is no friend of raw milk,” he said. “It sees my dairy as the head of a snake. It wants to cut it off and kill the snake.”
McAfee said that during a recent meeting of the “small-herd working group,” some of the farmers told state officials that there are at least 500 herd-shares operating “under the radar” in the state. Under a herd-share program, the dairy animals are owned by the shareholders, and the milk is consi
dered to be theirs and the
refore not being sold to them by the dairy.
As another example of the popularity of raw milk, McAfee also said that when his quarantine was lifted, Organic Pastures’ 6,500 online followers sent out messages to 2.5 million secondary contacts.
“That’s unbelievable,” he said. “It’s viral.”
Raw Milk Controversies
Raw-milk advocates say that raw milk contains more nutrients than pasteurized milk, which they refer to as “dead milk,” and that raw milk helps prevent or cure health problems ranging from asthma to Crohn’s Disease.
Public health officials say there is no scientific basis for those beliefs, and point to studies that show raw milk has no more benefits than pasteurized milk. The only difference, they say, is that there is greater risk in consuming raw milk, especially for children because they’re more vulnerable to foodborne diseases than are healthy adults.
Dr. James Watt, chief of California’s Health Services Department’s division of communicable disease control, was quoted in a California newspaper as saying that while it’s certainly true that E. coli or other related pathogens have been found in other things such as spinach, lettuce and cantaloupes, one of of the big issues is how these food are consumed.
“Those other foods are typically cooked, or at least can be washed,” he said. “Raw milk is consumed straight out of the bottle. There’s not much you can do if there’s contamination in there.”
California is one of 11 states that allows the sale of raw milk at retail stores separate from the farm. Along with 7 other states, it has high standards for cleanliness of the milk, with a coliform standard of no more than 10 coliform bacteria per milliliter, which is equivalent to the national and some international standards for pasteurized milk.
In California, state law requires that raw milk and raw milk products offered for sale be labeled with this public health alert: “Warning – raw (unpasteurized) milk and raw milk dairy products may contain disease-causing micro-organisms. Persons at highest risk of disease from these organisms include newborns and infants; the elderly; pregnant women; those taking corticosteroids, antibiotics or antacids; and those having chronic illnesses or other conditions that weaken their immunity.”
Under federal law, unpasteurized milk cannot be sold or distributed across state lines.
For more information about raw milk, go here. For information about recent dairy recalls and outbreaks associated with raw milk, go here. To read about myths and facts about raw milk, go here and here.
Outbreak Link to Organic Pastures
In the world of food safety, the term “epidemiologic evidence” refers to patterns of illnesses, such as food-poisoning outbreaks, that are associated with a common source, such as lettuce, milk or hamburger, often from a specific farm, company or processor.
Pathogens cause outbreaks often can’t be found in the food, on the farm, or in the processing facility, because by the time foodborne illness symptoms begin, are diagnosed and lab-confirmed, the suspect food is no longer available to be tested. This is particularly true for food poisoning outbreaks involving fresh produce or milk. Then, too, with E. coli, for example, a cow can be harboring the pathogen one week and not the next.
“In the vast majority of foodborne illness outbreaks, the pathogen is never found in the food product or the environment,” said food safety attorney Bill Marler, publisher of Food Safety News. But epidemiological evidence — the statistical analysis of what common food the sick people were exposed to — is valid not only in the public-health arena but also in the court of law.
In cases where the outbreak pathogen is not detected in a particular food, Marler says investigators “step back and let the facts speak for themselves.The legal question becomes ‘What is the most likely cause of the outbreak?’ “
Marler said it’s not at all uncommon for the weight of the epidemiologic evidence to prove the case in legal actions involving foodborne illnesses.
For example: In 2009, Nestlé Toll House prepackaged cookie dough sickened 77 people in 30 states. Of those, 35 were admitted to the hospital, a few with severe illness. Nestlé responded to the outbreak by recalling 3.6 million packages of its popular chocolate chip batter.
Even though the pathogen was never found in any of the leftover cookie dough or in the processing plant, the epidemiological evidence pointed to the product as the source of the outbreak and illnesses. Marler said Nestlé paid settlements to the victims, based on the epidemiological evidence that linked all of the sick people to presumably contaminated raw cookie dough.
Meanwhile, this latest E. coli outbreak linked to Organic Pastures is similar to one in 2006, when a cluster of children who drank raw milk from the dairy became ill. As in the recent outbreak, the pathogen wasn’t found in the milk available to be tested and tests failed to find a genetic match of the outbreak E. coli strain on the farm.
In a Dec. 16 email to Food Safety News, the California Department of Public Health compared the two outbreaks, saying that both times epidemiology by public health officials linked Organic Pastures’ raw milk to foodborne illnesses due to E. coli bacteria.
“That has not changed,” said the department’s e-mailed statement. “Epidemiology is sufficient evidence to establish that connection.” In ending the quarantine, the health authorities did not change their original conclusion, repeating: “the findings that all of the children drank Organic Pastures raw milk and this was the only common exposure among them established the dairy as the likely source of the illnesses.”
Along those same lines, an email from the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture said that the department is “confident in the results of the epidemiology investigation that the consumption of raw milk was the source of the children’s illnesses.”
Marler said he thinks McAfee has done a good job in food safety for the past 5 years, considering that raw milk is a high-risk food and that the dairy hasn’t been linked to an outbreak in those 5 years.
“It’s a remarkable testament to how seriously he’s taking food safety,” he said.
Even so, Marler warns that no one should “jumping for joy” and saying the farm has been vindicated because the tests for E. coli came out negative,
“Instead, I hope he (McAfee) is privately taking the epidemiologic evidence to heart and moving forward to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again,” he said.