E. Coli outbreaks spark raw milk warning

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Four children sick; odds against drinkers of unpasteurized milk, CDC report says


Capital Press

Oregon public health officials have confirmed that raw milk from a Wilsonville, Ore., dairy was responsible for an E. coli outbreak that has sickened at least 18 people and left four children hospitalized.

The outbreak is the second in the Northwest in 18 months linked to a raw dairy product and comes one month after a Centers for Disease Control report showed that 60 percent of disease outbreaks caused by dairy products between 1993 and 2006 were caused by nonpasteurized products.

The preponderance of outbreaks from raw dairy products grows in significance when considering only about 1 percent of U.S. households consume raw dairy products, the CDC report found.

"The fact that 60 percent, almost two-thirds, of the outbreaks can be traced to a nonpasteurized product means that the risk of disease associated with nonpasteurized products is much higher than it is with pasteurized products," said Dr. Katrina Hedberg, state epidemiologist at the Oregon Public Health Division.

"It isn't clear to me why people continue to consume nonpasteurized dairy products," Hedberg said. "The consequences are so severe."

In December 2010, a national food recall was issued after raw milk cheese from an Oroville, Wash., dairy, was found contaminated with E. coli. Eight people were sickened in the Sally Jackson Cheese outbreak.

The most recent outbreak proved more severe as numerous samples from the 17-acre Foundation Farm tested positive for E. coli 0157:H7, as did leftover milk recovered from a customer.

Four children were hospitalized after drinking milk from the farm. Two developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a type of kidney failure that can lead to death.

"This many people, this severely ill in this many households must mean that the milk was pretty contaminated," Hedberg said.

In the CDC report, the authors found that of 121 outbreaks for which the product's pasteurization was known, 73 involved unpasteurized products, resulting in 1,571 cases, 202 hospitalizations and two deaths. And 55 of the outbreaks occurred in states that permitted sale of nonpasteurized products, prompting health officials to continue to call for laws restricting the sale of raw milk.

Interstate sale of raw milk is prohibited, but 21 states allow in-state sales of the milk. Thirteen states include some restrictions on sales.

Oregon bans retail sales of raw milk, but allows on-farm sales under certain conditions. Raw milk consumers also can get product through herd-sharing programs, such as was conducted at Foundation Farms. In herd-sharing programs, consumers purchase shares in a herd.

Foundations Farms distributed raw milk to 48 households.

The outbreak apparently hasn't convinced raw milk advocates to curtail use of the product. Raw milk advocates say pasteurizing milk removes vitamins and nutrients and alters its taste.

Friends of Family Farmers, a group that backed a bill to expand the sale of raw milk in the 2011 Legislature, wrote in an e-mail it circulated April 13 that "we do not believe that access to raw milk should be eliminated."

The group wrote that hundreds of people have been sickened by foodborne pathogens from mainstream foods from licensed, inspected plants.

"We believe that people should be able to choose what they eat, and that it is not the government's role to tell us what we can and cannot eat," the group wrote.

Hedberg, meanwhile, took a different stance.

"We're scratching our heads as to why people would choose to consume nonpasteurized dairy products," she said. "The risks related to these pathogenic bacteria, including four kids in the hospital, that is what I'm talking about."

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