A new E. coli outbreak under investigation by federal officials has been traced to cheese produced by a dairy that has been linked to outbreaks and recalls in the past.

The Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are working with state and local health departments on the investigation that has already found 10 people with infections. Four people have been hospitalized and one has developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a serious condition that can cause kidney failure. As of Feb. 16 there were sick people in California, Utah, Colorado and Texas.

Raw Farm brand raw cheddar blocks and shredded cheese products have been linked to the outbreak. The operation based in Fresno, CA, was formerly known as Organic Pastures and was associated with outbreaks and had numerous recalls of its unpasteurized, raw milk products under that name.

In 2023 Raw Farm unpasteurized products were linked to an outbreak of 20 Salmonella infections in two counties in California.

“This is obviously not the first time this operation has had problems with its products,” said Bill Marler an attorney and food safety specialist from Seattle, WA. “We sued them in 2006 when an E. coli outbreak then resulted in two children developing HUS.”

The scope of the current E. Coli outbreak is not yet known with the CDC and FDA investigations continuing.

The FDA reports that the implicated cheese was sold nationwide. Some outbreak victims reported having purchased the cheese at Sprouts Farmers Markets and Bristol Farms retailers but there may be other retailers selling the cheese. It is against federal law to sell raw milk across state lines.

Owners of Raw Farm have agreed to recall some lots of its cheddar cheese products.

Products associated with this outbreak, according to the FDA’s outbreak announcement, are “Original Flavor” all sizes of blocks and shredded packages, and “Cheddar with added Jalapeño Flavor” all sizes of blocks and shredded packages.

Federal court action

This past summer, U.S. District Judge Jennifer L. Thurston for Eastern California signed a Consent Decree agreed upon by attorneys for the United States and Organic Pastures and owner Mark McAfee.

It continues a 15-year-old jurisdiction of the Eastern District Court over a civil matter involving the concern over RAW FARM LLC, Organic Pasture’s new legal name.

In March 2023, the U.S. Department of Justice raised possible civil contempt allegations against RAW FARM, Mark McAfee, and Arron McAfee. An evidentiary hearing on that issue was set for Aug. 9, 2023, but was canceled by the Consent Decree.

That means the court’s jurisdiction continues over the the dairy operation and its owners, and, an April 2010 Order remains in effect for all the directors, officers, agents, representatives, attorneys, and others involved.

The RAW FARM defendants, after 60 months, can petition the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for “relief  from this Decree.”  In the meantime, they must “abide by the decisions of the FDA.”

Under the agreement the FDA gets the power of inspections without prior notice. The Decree spells out specific requirements for audits and labeling that must be followed. It includes hiring an independent “labeling expert.”

The Department of Justice reopened a 2008 litigation last in March 2023, claiming Organic Pastures, known now as RAW FARM LLC, was violating a April 2010 Permanent Injunction, which imposed restrictions from distributing in interstate commerce unapproved drugs, misbranded food, and raw milk and raw milk products for human consumption.

The production and sale of raw milk by Organic Pastures within California, where it is legal, was not impacted by the April 2010 order. It’s estimated that the dairy operation has 60,000  retail customers of raw milk in the Golden State.

In re-opening the case, DOJ said a raw cheese claiming it can cure, mitigate, treat, or prevent human disease, including heart disease, osteoporosis, and viral infections, violates the April 2010 order.  

The Court previously agreed with the DOJ that RAW FARM and the McAfee parties violated the Permanent Injunction Order issued on April 20, 2010.  Before any new testimony was taken, the Defendants agreed to the Consent Decree.

The government also takes issue with RAW FARM’s claim that its raw milk labeled as “pet food” is safe for human consumption.

“Organic Pastures and its principals, Mark and Aaron McAfee, have thus continued their pattern of distributing their products in interstate commerce with unproven claims about the ‘wonders’ of raw milk and its associated products,” said the DOJ petititon.

In that March 2023 petition, the government wanted to hold  RAW FARM/Organic Pastures and McAfee in contempt with contempt sanctions.

While the 2008 civil case was pending, Organic Pastures 15 years ago also faced similar charges in a criminal action involving similar conduct. The criminal matter concluded in settlement by plea agreement on Dec. 22, 2008, and was approved by Magistrate Judge Sandra M. Snyder on Jan. 9, 2009. 

 Pursuant to the plea agreement, Organic Pastures pleaded guilty to two counts of misdemeanor introduction and delivery for introduction into interstate commerce of misbranded food. McAfee entered into a deferred prosecution agreement whereby he agreed to the filing of a two-count information charging him and Organic Pastures with the same violations. 

In these agreements, both defendants admitted that: (1) on two separate occasions “one or more of defendant Organic Pastures’ agents or employees, with the knowledge and consent of Organic Pastures, caused [a] box of raw milk and dairy products, labeled as or otherwise represented to be ‘pet food,’ to be sent by defendant Organic Pastures” into interstate commerce, “knowing that the intended use of such foods and/or dietary supplements was for human consumption;” and (2) Organic Pastures’ raw milk and raw milk products “were foods and/or dietary supplements, and were misbranded when so introduced into or delivered for introduction into interstate commerce, in that they were falsely and misleadingly labeled as, or otherwise represented.

In the April 2010 order, Organic  Pastures and McAfee acknowledged violating federal food safety law by introducing and/or distributing raw milk into interstate commerce in 2007. They also conceded that they violated the “unapproved raw drugs” provision of the FDA. They did oppose the order as inconsistent with the State of California’s regulation of the raw milk industry.

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