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Listeria in Whittier Farms Milk Kills Two in Massachusetts, Sickens Two Others

Dec 28, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP

Listeria tainted milk produced by Central Massachusetts’ Whittier Farms is the likely source of a listeriosis outbreak in that state, killing two elderly men and sickening two others.   Whittier has halted production and alerted its customers.  Listeriosis is a type of food poisoning especially dangerous to the elderly, pregnant women, newborns, and those with chronic medical conditions.  Investigators have been unable to pinpoint the exact listeria contamination source in the production process; however, samples tested positive for listeria, said Dr. Alfred DeMaria, the state's director of communicable disease control.  DeMaria believes milk was tainted following pasteurization, perhaps when flavoring was added or during bottling.  Milk is sold under the names Whittier, Schultz, Balance Rock, Spring Brook, and Maple.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 2,500 people become seriously ill with listeriosis annually; 500 result in death.  In Massachusetts, about 25 cases are identified yearly, but DeMaria said those represent only a fraction since most people experience only mild flu like symptoms—fever, muscle aches, nausea, or diarrhea—never reporting them.  In serious cases, the disease spreads to the nervous system, causing headaches, stiff neck, and convulsions.  Listeria lives in soil and water and can easily contaminate dairy and beef products; because listeria thrives in cold, milk is an ideal environment.

Testing showed the bacteria infecting four victims shared identical genetic fingerprints—their illnesses were likely caused by the same source.  When investigators interviewed those who were recently ill, they discovered one victim had an open container of the milk in the refrigerator.  Tests revealed it was tainted with the same type of listeria that sickened two, killed two, and resulted in one miscarriage.  At least one of the deceased men consumed Whittier milk.

Whittier is a mom-and-pop operation that runs two stores and sells milk in glass bottles delivered to customers' doorsteps in Worcester County.  Whittier breeds and milks its own cows, delivers the milk to its creamery, processes it, and sells it at its stores and nearby farm stands.  Inspectors regularly visit dairies and the labs dairies use to conduct their quality control testing.  The state also collects samples and independently tests milk to ensure its safety.  When food safety and disease specialists visited Whittier last week, they found the pasteurization system to be fully intact and free of contamination, a strong clue that tainting occurred following processing.

Meanwhile, there were at least three recent cases of listeriosis in North Carolina identified in Moore, Durham, and Mecklenburg counties; a probable case was identified in Buncombe County.  All three confirmed cases involved Latinas; two were pregnant women whose pregnancies ended in miscarriage.  The third case also involved a pregnant woman; she delivered early and she and her baby are doing well. The probable case involves another pregnant Latina who lost her baby.  All four women consumed soft cheeses from a variety of sources.  Although the cases occurred close together in time, data from molecular testing confirmed different strains were involved.  Because a single product does not seem to be the source, a general Listeria warning was issued.


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