The strain of E. coli that caused nine children to become ill after drinking raw milk obtained from McBee Dairy Farm near Knoxville, Tenn., has been matched to animal waste collected at the dairy, according to a Thursday press release from the Tennessee Health Department.

Five of the nine children, all younger than seven, required hospitalization, and three developed a severe kidney problem known as hemolytic uremic syndrome.

Raw milk hasn’t been pasteurized to kill harmful, and at times deadly, pathogens such as E. coli, Listeria, Salmonella and Campylobacter. While raw-milk advocates believe it helps cure ailments such as asthma and various allergies, food-safety experts discount those claims as anecdotal and not based on science. They also warn of the serious risks to human health, including death, associated with it.

The department’s investigation involved an on-site inspection of the farm (McBee Dairy Farm), interviews of 88 households that purchased milk from the farm, and laboratory analysis of samples and materials to compare bacterial strains. Officials from the Knox County Health Department have also been involved in the investigation and patient outreach efforts.

“This outbreak points out, again, the serious risks associated with drinking unpasteurized or ‘raw’ milk,” said TDH Commissioner John Dreyzehner, M.D., MPH. “While people with stronger immune systems may be able to overcome the bacteria found in raw milk, children, older people, pregnant women and those with health conditions can be seriously harmed by bacteria in non-pasteurized milk products and should not consume them.”

“Milk from the healthiest-appearing cows in the cleanest dairy operations can still contain deadly microorganisms,” said TDH State Epidemiologist Tim Jones, M.D. “Pasteurization, which simply involves heating the milk, kills these microorganisms and leaves the healthy nutrients. Those who consume raw milk are playing Russian roulette with their health; the glass they drink today may not have deadly microorganisms, but the one they drink tomorrow may cause serious health problems or even death.”

The McBee Dairy Farm operates a cowshare program in which the customers own shares in the cows and therefore also own the milk. Under this sort of arrangement, which state officials refer to as a “legal loophole,” the dairy is technically not selling the milk.

Tom Womack, spokesman for the state’s Agriculture Department, said the department doesn’t know how many cowshares there are in Tennessee because it doesn’t track them, nor does it regulate them.

In an email to Food Safety News, dairy farmer Marcie McBee said that the dairy has regular testing in place now that “will show us if we have clean milk.”

Even so, she said regular testing “still does not make the milk 100 percent safe, as no living food is 100 percent protected from having a bacteria enter it.”

McBee also reiterated her belief that people should be free to choose what food and milk they eat and drink.

“My customers and I feel that we are well-informed and able to make our own decisions about the food we consume,” she said.

McBee also pointed to what she believes is the state’s failure in informing them about what they could have been doing to prevent E. coli from getting into their milk, at least as much as possible.

“The health department has done nothing to help us improve or locate a problem here,” she said. “We have not been informed on any testing that we could have done or could incorporate to detect or prevent a problem.”

She said that, in the future, she hopes to be able to work with the university or the health department to help them and the farmers connect in better ways — “ways that are beneficial to the health of the public, the farm, and the government.”

Womack said that while the safety of raw milk can be improved through good practices, the risk of contamination with potentially deadly pathogens cannot be eliminated altogether.

“Even the best practices and best inspection and sampling programs can give the unsuspecting public a false sense of security with unpasteurized milk and milk products,” he said. “While educational programs and technical resources for farmers are good and encouraged, they simply cannot give the assurance that only pasteurization can provide.”

Shelley Walker, spokesperson for the state’s Health Department, said that the investigation of this case included a strong recommendation to the dairy owners that they engage a consultant to evaluate their operation.

Go here for more information and questions and answers about raw milk.

  • Cowvet

    McBee’s attitude is classic: The government can’t tell me what I can eat but they should have provided me the services to make sure I don’t kill anyone.

    • Loren Eaton

      According to his website it appears that God made him do it;_)

  • Michael Lagrou

    The better classic response: If the government is going is to have the authority to tell me when something I produce is unsafe and will not allow me to eat it, a product that has been produced and consumed for centuries by millions in many countries with tremendous benefit, then they should make available to me, a tax payer, the services of know how they possess to meet their criteria that would allow me to produce and consume what I choose.

  • Emily Nelson

    Here’s what you can do to “improve or locate the problem”, Ms. McBee. PASTEURIZE YOUR MILK.

  • claire

    the issue is more with the care taken at the farm and not with the milk per se. at least nobody died like they did when they ate cantaloupe. maybe we should ban cantaloupe.

    • MaryMcGonigleMartin

      Washing the rind with hot water and bleach, will kill the pathogens. There is a kill step before cutting into the cantaloupe. People now know they need to do that before eating a cantaloupe.

  • milkdrinker

    Pharmaceuticals taken as prescibed kill 100,000 people every year, don`t see those being outlawed. I don`t need the government to protect me. I make my own choices and live with them.

    • Smiley Face

      Yes, that’s right. You don’t need the government to protect you. If the U.S. gets attacked again, you can go down to the new WTC site and clean up the whole thing yourself while protecting the masses. You can negotiate treaties about trade and not getting bombed into oblivion. You can build highways plus help with immigration and tracking terrorists/drug dealers. You deliver ALL THE MAIL and work as the police, too. You are a one man nation. Carry on, He-Man-Woman-Thang.

    • guest3

      The government comprising of millions of payroll beneficiaries wants to stay alive either as an sustained or growing entity. This means more federal tax funds are needed to feed the hungry mouths and the clammy hands. Innovative statistical figures are presented to validate their continued existence. If government had layoffs at the same pace as the private sector employment then USA would be a country were the voice of reason is the most appraised traits of its citizens. Participating and educated. We should all reject half truths and outright lies from your consciousness.

  • earthswakeupcall

    They are full of it, they meaning the FEDS just want these guys to look bad so the suckers of society can fall for it and then the liars can pull out their reasoning to making us drink milk with aspartame in it. Which mind you is grown from feces. So uhmm yeah right.

  • peopel

    haters gonna die today….smoke milk… drink milk…yaeh.

  • Farm Boy

    When I was a kid growing up on a farm, we weren’t dumb enough to drink raw milk from our own cows, to many opportunities to introduce bacteria into the system.

  • guest3

    Why do people even bother to read all the USA produced junk news? Always the same kind of butchering of the data. The omission of important statistical data such as sample size, sample period and statistical variation. Why always same mistake in majority of news articles? In this case the regional variation would be of utmost interest! A look up of ‘raw milk’ in wikipedia shows that several major European countries allow sale of raw milk. European countries have much smarter folks than the US. Thrust me. Just copy France and Germany if you don’t have the brains needed for thinking by yourself. Has it ever occurred to anyone that farmers could actually voluntarily test their own raw milk offering for dangerous pathogens?Why not spend a fixed portion of the revenue on testing for well known bacterial strains to maintain their good reputation? I doubt that the cost of testing would be any way prohibitive in comparison to milk sales price per gallon. Or if the testing does indeed cost a lot then just add the cost of testing on top of the price of the product like everyone else in sales business does. The buyer might well appreciate the sellers efforts and also pay more if he knows that this farm is differentiating itself in a positive way compared to the farms that are a few miles down the road. It is time the consumer is given the chance to become smart and stay smart rather than adding yet another federal or state law banning this and banning that.

  • joshuabardwell

    “The health department has done nothing to help us improve or locate a problem here,” she said. “We have not been informed on any testing that we could have done or could incorporate to detect or prevent a problem.”

    Except… you know, PASTEURIZATION.

  • River Garden

    I drink raw goat milk every day. Not only have I not got sick from it, I haven’t been sick since I started. Poor bacteria count in the gut has been linked to autism-like symptoms in mice. Not for me or my kids! Kieffer cultures can be used to kill off the harmful bacteria without need for heating the milk and loosing the probiotics (if you feel the need.) You don’t mention this in the article. The risks of raw dairy products are low in comparison to the standard grain-based nutrient-deprived diet many Americans are settled into. Would it be fair to ask if soft drinks easily kill more Tennesseans through diabetes each year? Raw milk and raw cheese also taste so much better. The milk in the store taste like the plastic milk jugs you drink them out of. Who knows what all that plastic does to your body. In this age of education, Americans have the ability to make these decisions for themselves. E. Coli is much more common in lettuce or spinach than in raw milk, so if you’re not drinking raw milk for this reason, you better cut out the leafy greens from your diet while your at it. I did appreciate the over-the-top article. I like to start off my day with farm fresh eggs and “Russian roulette!”