Five California boys found with genetically matching E. coli O157:H7 infections in the fall of 2011 have been conclusively linked to raw milk produced by Organic Pastures, a Fresno dairy, according to a report published Monday by the California Department of Public Health.

Following an investigation by the state health department and the California Department of Food and Agriculture, public health investigators concluded that Organic Pastures raw milk was the only common exposure between the five boys, who each drank it within the week prior to falling ill.

Raw milk is milk that has not been pasteurized to eliminate harmful pathogens from cow excrement, such as E. coli O157:H7 and Campylobacter, which may contaminate fresh milk.

Environmental samples from the dairy detected E. coli that was genetically identical to the five children’s infections. According to the report, the particular E. coli type in the outbreak is uncommon in California and had not been seen in the state since January 2010.

Three of the boys were hospitalized with hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a potentially deadly disease characterized by the destruction of red blood cells and acute kidney failure. The five victims were residents of four separate counties: Contra Costa (2 brothers), Kings (1), Sacramento (1) and San Diego (1). They ranged in age from one to five years old, with a median age of four. 

The investigators compared the boys’ infections with 47 other cases of E. coli O157:H7 infection in young children with illness onsets in the same timeframe. They found that raw milk was much more closely associated with the five boys whose infections matched the Organic Pastures samples. In fact, none of the other 47 children with E. coli infections had consumed raw milk within a week of becoming ill.

Given that only approximately three percent of Californians drink raw milk, the report explains, the probability of all five victims consuming raw milk is less than one in 10 million.

The report cites a 2006 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to Organic Pastures raw milk or raw colostrum that sickened six children. The dairy has previously initiated recalls of its raw milk products after detecting Campylobacter and Listeria monocytogenes in samples.

The report also noted that there might have been additional E. coli infections from the same lot of Organic Pastures raw milk that went undiagnosed and unreported. By the time the health department initiated its investigation, there were no remaining samples of milk from that lot available to test, as it had all expired or been consumed.

“Nonetheless, data from the epidemiologic, laboratory and environmental investigations strongly implicate Organic Pastures raw milk as the source of the illnesses,” the report stated.

In November 2011, California State Veterinarian Dr. Annette Whiteford announced a statewide recall of all Organic Pastures raw milk products, with the exception of cheese aged to at least 60 days. The dairy was then placed on a quarantine order and not allowed to produce raw milk for retail for 30 days.

Health department officials inspected the dairy and found a number of sanitation problems, including poor equipment maintenance for preventing contamination, rodent droppings and flies in milk storage rooms, and colostrum buckets overturned onto cardboard lying on the floor.

Following the November 2011 outbreak, the state department of health forced Organic Pastures to discontinue production of its raw colostrum permanently, even though that product was not being suspected of causing the outbreak.

The health department’s report concluded by offering support to public education efforts regarding the risks of raw milk consumption. Children, pregnant women, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems are most susceptible to the bacteria that may contaminate iraw milk.

A full environmental investigation report on Organic Pastures’ facility is still forthcoming.

  • JC

    Come on all you raw milk advocates.. I am waiting for the excuses. Let’s hear em.

  • Alan

    OK, JC I’m here.
    There is risk to every food product you buy and consume. Nobody responsible has ever said anything different.
    If you want to play odds, Raw Milk is a better bet than pasteurized milk. The reports I see show that on a serving-to-outbreak basis, raw milk is safer that pasteurized milk, and either is safer than other foods including meats and vegetables.
    The fact is that us “advocates” don’t consider raw milk and pasteurized milk to be the same. The pasteurized milk advocates believe it is the same but consider this. They have to pasteurize their milk because the cheap mass produced factory farm milk is nearly guaranteed to have pathogens in it. To drink factory-farm raw milk would be insane. On the other hand the milk OPDC produces millions of servings without pathogens in it because it is clean to start with and has none of the deleterious effects of pasteurization and homogenization.
    BTW, the kids who did get sick — I read that their mothers are still buying and using the same dangerous raw milk. Why? Are they nuts? No — they realize that raw milk is their best chance for developing robust immune systems. I would do the same thing.
    It does appear to me that the DNA evidence does trace the illness bad to OPDC, but if so why was not the contagion much more widespread? Reading the report doesn’t seem to give much insight to this.

  • JC

    CDC researchers reviewed all dairy-related outbreaks in the U.S. between 1993 to 2006. They found 121 disease outbreaks caused by dairy, which led to 4,413 illnesses, 239 hospitalizations and three deaths. But the researchers found that 60 percent of the outbreaks were caused by raw milk products, which also include cheese and yogurt. Also, nearly all the hospitalizations (200 of 239) were in those sickened by raw milk. These dairy-related outbreaks occurred in 30 states, and 75 percent of the raw milk outbreaks occurred in the 21 states where it was legal to sell raw milk products at the time.

  • Alan

    Curious about how they picked the dates for their study to get the result they wanted. If they had included 2007 in their study and the 1980s they would have come up with a very different result.
    With the omitted data put back, you would have to conclude that all dairy is relatively low risk compared to other food products, and raw milk scores slightly better than pasteurized. Of course, “advocates” of pasteurization do things like that all the time.

  • Mary

    If the CDC had included outbreaks from 2007 to date in its study, there would have been a very different result indeed. It would be evident that raw milk is even greater than 150 times more likely than pasteurized milk to make you sick.
    Since the end of the peer-reviewed CDC study period in 2006, there have been at least another 56 disease outbreaks connected to raw milk and raw milk products, including the outbreaks in which 5 little boys were sickened by E. coli O157:H7 from Organic Pastures raw milk in California,18 people were sickened with Campylobacter by raw milk in Kansas and at least 80 people were sickened with Campylobacter by raw milk from Your Family Cow dairy in Pennsylvania.
    The number of raw milk drinkers is minuscule compared with the number of pasteurized milk drinkers in this country, yet proportionately raw milk drinkers account for far more illnesses from fecal contamination of milk than do people who drink pasteurized milk, because heat treatment offers a measure of protection from the pathogens found in cow excrement, which can so easily get into milk.
    Accepting the risk of drinking unpasteurized milk is a personal choice. However, the public’s interest in that choice is the cumulative costs to taxpayers for outbreak medical treatment, health/agriculture department investigations and higher health insurance premiums for what are clearly preventable illnesses.