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E. coli suspected from Fresno dairy

Sep 23, 2006 | San Diego Union Tribune

California has ordered a recall of raw, unpasteurized milk products produced by a Fresno company after four children, including two in San Diego County, became seriously ill after consuming them.

Three of the youngsters were hospitalized earlier this month with severe diarrhea caused by a potentially lethal toxin generated by a type of E. coli bacteria.

State health officials suspect this bacteria, known as 0157:H7, came from cream, cow colostrum, whole milk or skim milk processed without pasteurization by Organic Pastures.

All of the company's milk items, except its raw butter and raw cheese, have been quarantined on order of California's veterinarian, Dr. Richard Breitmeyer.

State officials issued the recall late Thursday, and San Diego County health experts relayed the order yesterday.

Organic Pastures may not produce raw milk products for the retail market until further notice.

Most Californians consume milk that is pasteurized, a process that eliminates the risk of bacterial contamination. However, raw milk products are marketed as being more nutritious.

One of the affected children consumed raw cow colostrum. (Colostrum is the first fluid, rich in protein, secreted after birth of an offspring.)

The other three drank raw milk, according to the state Department of Food and Agriculture in Sacramento, which is handling the investigation.

Tests from all four children revealed the presence of 0157:H7, which is the same type of E. coli found in the recent multi-state contamination of spinach. But the youngsters were infected with a different strain of 0157:H7, state officials said.

Interviews with the children's families have confirmed that all four youngsters consumed Organic Pastures' milk products in recent weeks. However, none of the company's milk items has turned up positive for the bacteria.

Mark McAfee, owner of Organic Pastures, insisted during a phone interview yesterday that he does not believe his dairy farm produced contaminated products.

“They don't know what it is,” he said, referring to the state officials. He added that he was told some of the children also ate poorly cooked hamburger or spinach and could have ingested the bacteria that way.

“The state has told us this is a precautionary recall,” McAfee said. “They have to shoot first and ask questions later, and you can't blame the guys. And although we test our milk like nobody tests it for every pathogen, (the raw milk products industry has) a long history of people becoming sick.”

Organic Pastures is the largest supplier of organic raw milk in California, with $6 million in annual sales, he said. This is the second year his company has faced problems with government officials.

In 2005, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned Organic Pastures that it was illegally distributing, across state lines, unpasteurized milk, buttermilk, butter, cream and colostrums in finished form for human consumption.

Now, the company distributes such products only within California. Its major markets are large alternative or health-food store chains such as Henry's Farmers Market, Whole Foods Market and Boney's.

In San Diego County, environmental health officials have contacted various stores that sell the products and asked that they be removed.

The officials are urging anyone who finds Organic Pastures' raw milk items at a store to contact the county Department of Environmental Health. They also want consumers to dispose of any of the products they may have at home.

Dr. Wilma Wooten, deputy health officer for San Diego County, said the two San Diego-area children did not know each other.

One of the patients, an 8-year-old girl, drank the raw milk on Sept. 2 and Sept. 3, became sick three days later and was admitted to a local hospital for two days. Wooten said health officials at first thought this was an isolated case.

The second San Diego child an 8-year-old boy did not attract county officials' attention until yesterday, when the boy's parents realized he drank some milk while visiting a neighbor. Previously, the parents had said their child did not consume any raw milk products.

The boy didn't require hospitalization, but the physician who treated him took a stool sample and had it tested. The doctor reported the test results to health officials.

As of yesterday evening, the two other children remain hospitalized. One is in Riverside County, and the other is in San Bernardino County. State officials did not say what hospitals were treating them or what their conditions were.

Wooten said San Diego health officials “continue to warn the medical community as we always do with outbreaks like this – to be on the lookout for symptoms associated with this type of infection, collect stool samples and report those that are positive.”

Symptoms of 0157:H7 infection include abdominal cramping and bloody diarrhea. There is usually no fever, and the illness typically clears up within 10 days.

More serious cases can involve a condition called hemolytic uremic syndrome. When this happens, red blood cells are destroyed and kidney failure may occur.

People most at risk for serious complications from 0157:H7 infection include young children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

Individuals who develop symptoms should seek medical care immediately.

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