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Dairy Owners Plead Guilty in Raw Milk E. Coli Case

Jun 25, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

Three adults and 15 children were sickened by raw milk traced back to Dee Creek's dairy and three of the children were hospitalized with renal failure, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  Now, Michael and Anita Puckett, owners of Dee Creek’s, have pled guilty to distribution of adulterated food involved in the December 2005 E. coli outbreak.  The couple faces a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine at their September 5 sentencing later this year. The case was prosecuted in federal court because the milk crossed state lines.  

As part of their agreements, the Puckett’s acknowledged that "the milk was prepared, packed, or held under ‘insanitary’ conditions whereby it may have been rendered injurious to health."  State Agriculture Department investigators found E. coli in samples of raw milk from the farm, which paid $8,000 in fines to settle health code violations related to the outbreak and subsequently acquired several licenses it needs to operate.

The farm provided raw milk under a "cow-share" arrangement in which customers buy a share of a cow rather than purchase the milk directly.  State agriculture officials said farmers operating under such an arrangement must obtain a state license.  Dee Creek did not possess such a license at the time.

In 1938, milk was the cause of 25 percent of all food- and water-related sickness.  With the introduction of universal pasteurization—long considered one of the most successful public health endeavors of the last century—that number fell to one percent by 1993.  Despite this, a growing number of dairy owners have been selling raw milk—some illegally—as part of the growing natural food movement.

Some believe raw milk contains organisms that treat all manner of maladies, including digestive problems, asthma, and autism and feel raw milk offers greater benefits because it allegedly does not contain chemicals and hormones found in many dairy products.  This growing contingent says the heat necessary for pasteurization kills healthy natural proteins and enzymes.  "Raw milk should not be consumed by anyone for any reason," said John Sheehan, head of the FDA's dairy office. "It is an inherently dangerous product."

The FDA says pasteurization destroys harmful bacteria without significantly changing milk's nutritional value and also extends its shelf life.  The FDA has long warned against the inherent dangers of consuming raw milk and has begun looking into raw milk purveyors to determine if such farmers are selling raw milk legally given the large number of regulations regarding how raw milk can sold and over concerns of food borne illnesses. Currently, it is illegal to sell raw milk for human consumption in 22 states.  The other states allow raw milk sales within their borders; the FDA bans sales across state lines.

Food safety officials say raw milk has sickened hundreds of people with Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, and other harmful and potentially fatal bacteria.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1,000 people fell ill from raw milk between 1998 and 2005. Two died.


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