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Listeria Deaths Now Number Three in Whittier Farms Outbreak

Jan 8, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Listeria tainted milk has claimed another victims.  An 87-year-old man who consumed a listeria contaminated product from Whittier Farms in Massachusetts became the third fatality.   Listeria in Whittier Farms milk had already been linked to two deaths and other illnesses.  A 78-year-old man and a 75-year-old man died in June and October; the 87-year-old man fell ill in November and died Thursday.  The number of people also rose to five after health officials linked a 31-year-old woman's listeriosis, diagnosed in September, to Whittier products.  The listeria infection was detected while the woman was in the hospital to deliver a baby.  Another elderly man and a pregnant woman survived, although the woman miscarried.  Health officials say the listeria bacteria entered Whittier Farms' milk supply after pasteurization.

Although relatively rare, Listeria—listeria monocytogenes— the bacteria that can cause listeriosis, is a potentially fatal disease that can kill babies, people with weakened immune systems, and the elderly and can cause miscarriages in pregnant women.  Symptoms include fever, headache, stiffness, nausea, abdominal pain, and diarrhea and can come on suddenly.  Listeria is more likely to cause death than any other bacteria that cause food poisoning.  In fact, 20 to 30 percent of food borne listeriosis infections in high-risk individuals may be fatal.  In serious cases, listeria can also lead to brain infection.  Unlike most bacteria, Listeria can survive and sometimes grow on foods being stored in the refrigerator.  Moreover, foods that are contaminated with this bacterium look, smell, and taste normal.

Last week, it was confirmed that coffee-flavored milk from a cooler at the dairy carried germs identical to the listeria bacteria that killed the first two men and sickened the man and pregnant woman in the first reports leaving little doubt that Whittier’s is the source.  Genetic fingerprinting conducted at the state laboratory proved a milk sample collected at Whittier two weeks prior, a sample taken in November from a bottle in a victim's refrigerator, and blood drawn from all four of the original patients contained the same listeria type.  "The pattern is very unique," said Dr. Alfred DeMaria, the state director of communicable disease control adding, "It means there's an outbreak here.  And it implies that the dairy is the common source."  It is extremely rare to discover multiple listeria cases with identical genetic profiles.  Generally, each infection derives from a different bacterium.  In 19 other cases in Massachusetts last year, each infection was caused by a germ with a distinctive fingerprint.  
Likewise, there were no genetic matches among 99 cases in the previous five years.

Whittier makes milk products under the Whittier, Schultz, Balance Rock, Spring Brook, Model Dairy, and Maple brands and include whole, two-percent, one-percent, and skim milk and heavy cream with low-fat chocolate, coffee, strawberry, vanilla, and eggnog flavors.  Except for Balance Rock, which comes in bottles, Whittier brands are sold in plastic and glass containers.

DeMaria said the outbreak was just the third in pasteurized milk in the U.S.  Listeria is more commonly associated with luncheon meats, soft cheeses, and hot dogs, but can be found in raw, or unpasteurized, milk, he said.

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