In a letter to Organic Pastures owner Mark McAfee, the California Department of Public Health said 10 samples collected from the raw milk dairy’s calf area were positive for E. coli O157:H7, and two were a genetic match for the outbreak strain that infected five children.

Those findings support the probability, the public-health agency wrote, that the dairy’s milk was contaminated, and led to the children’s illnesses.

The letter also listed a number of “sanitary deficiencies” it said were observed during an inspection of the dairy’s production areas.  Dated Jan. 17, 2012, the letter was signed by Patrick Kennelly, chief of the Food Safety Section of the Food and Drug Branch of the state health department.

In November 2011, California State Veterinarian Dr. Annette Whiteford announced a statewide recall of Organic Pastures raw milk products. Under the recall, all Organic Pastures raw dairy products, with the exception of cheese aged a minimum of 60 days, were pulled from retail shelves and consumers were strongly urged to dispose of any products remaining in their refrigerators. 

For more than 30 days, Organic Pastures was under a quarantine order, and not allowed to produce raw milk products for the retail market. In addition to unpasteurized milk, the order also affected the dairy’s raw butter, raw cream, raw colostrum, and a product labeled “Qephor.”

The recall and quarantine order came after five children were infected, from August through October, with the same strain of E. coli O157:H7. The children are residents of Contra Costa, Kings, Sacramento and San Diego counties. Three of the five children were hospitalized with hemolytic uremic syndrome, a serious condition that may lead to kidney failure. 

State health department said interviews with the families indicated that the only common reported food exposure among the children was unpasteurized (raw) milk from Organic Pastures dairy.

According to the Department of Health letter, strong epidemiologic evidence linked Organic Pastures to the outbreak from the start. Surveys indicate that only about three percent of the public report drinking raw milk in any given week, so finding that 100 percent of these children drank raw milk — combined with the absence of other common foods or animal exposures — indicated the Organic Pastures raw milk was the likely source of their infection.

Now there’s a microbiologic link as well.

The letter to McAfee, provided to Food Safety News via a public-disclosure request, stated that the health department’s Food and Drug Branch collected and tested samples from Organic Pastures of manure, colostrum, water, soil and various surfaces.

“Ten of the samples collected from the calf area were positive for E. coli O157:H7 … of which two of the isolates (1 fecal and 1 water) had a PFGE (pulsed-field gel electrophoresis) pattern indistinguishable from the outbreak strain,” the letter states. ” … the fact that E. coli O157:H7 identical to the outbreak strain was recovered from Organic Pastures environment supports the probability that the Organic Pastures raw milk that the case patients consumed was similarly contaminated leading to their illnesses.”

The letter also said samples of colostrum from the dairy revealed shiga toxin-producing pathogens. However, the isolate of the shiga toxin was so rare that California was unable to serotype it at their laboratory, and sent it to the CDC.

Sanitary deficiencies were noted in the dairy’s milk bottling room, milk storage rooms, bottle labeler room, “kefir” room and common areas, according to the letter. Among those cited:

– Failure to maintain equipment in good repair and in sanitary conditions so as to protect products from potential contamination;

– Failure to effectively exclude pests from the facility so as to protect products from potential contamination;

– Failure to maintain milk storage areas in good repair and in a sanitary condition so as to protect products from potential contamination.

Some of the specific observations made by the Food and Drug Branch inspectors:

– Rodent droppings in the Milk Storage Room 2;

– Chipping paint and an accumulation of mold/mildew in the “kefir” room; 

– Buckets used to handle/store colostrum inverted on cardboard lying directly on the floor;

– Milk storage area infested with large number of flies;

– A main drain uncovered with an accumulation of standing sewage water. 

The letter noted that a follow-up inspection on Dec. 13, 2011 indicated some facility improvements had been made and new equipment installed. It concluded by informing Organic Pastures that it must “provide adequate documentation that the deficiencies noted in the inspection have been mitigated and systemic procedures have been implemented to prevent their reoccurrence.”

Kennelly also wrote that the Food and Drug Branch would continue to work with Organic Pastures “to assure that operational and sanitary operations reduce the risk of contamination of raw milk” products produced by the dairy.

Organic Pastures Dairy Company has been the subject of other recalls and outbreaks. Most notably, the dairy was quarantined in 2006 after six children became ill with E. coli O157:H7 infections from consumer raw dairy products, according to the CDC report from 2006.

In 2007, 50 strains of Campylobacter jejuni plus Campylobacter coli, Campylobacter fetus, Campylobacter hyointetinalis, and Campylobacter lari were cultured from OPDC dairy cow feces.

Also in 2007, Listeria monocytogenes was cultured from Organic Pastures Grade A raw cream. In 2008, Campylobacter was cultured from Organic Pastures Grade A raw cream.

The state of California’s final report on the 2011 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to Organic Pastures is expected to be released shortly.