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Whittier Farms Milk Tied to Listeria Outbreak in Massachusetts

Jan 3, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP The link between Whittier Farms milk and a Massachusetts listeria outbreak has been all but confirmed.  State health inspectors met at Whittier Farm’s processing plant this week to continue investigating the deadly contamination source linked to two deaths.  Coffee-flavored milk from a cooler at the dairy carried germs identical to the listeria bacteria that killed two and sickened two others, according to state test results.  The results left little doubt that Whittier’s is the source given that genetic fingerprinting conducted at the state laboratory proved a milk sample collected at Whittier two weeks ago, a sample taken in November from a bottle in a victim's refrigerator, and blood drawn from all four patients contained the same listeria type.  "The pattern is very unique," said Dr. Alfred DeMaria, the state's director of communicable disease control. "It means there's an outbreak here.  And it implies that the dairy is the common source."

Listeriosis is a food poisoning especially dangerous to the elderly, pregnant women, newborns, and those with chronic medical conditions.  Contamination causes mild flu-like symptoms including fever, muscle aches, nausea, and diarrhea and can spread to the nervous system, causing headaches, stiff neck, and convulsions.  Listeria lives in soil and water and can contaminate dairy and beef products.  Because listeria thrives in cold, milk offers an ideal environment.

It is extremely rare to discover multiple listeria cases with identical genetic profiles.  Generally, each infection generates 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.

The state is now focusing on the packaging process, the Department of Public Health said.  The entire production line is being swabbed by investigators, but after evaluating the dairy's pasteurization practices, they concluded Whittier closely followed guidelines dictating the temperature at which, and for how long, milk is sterilized, indicating activities following pasteurization could be the source, said Suzanne Condon, the top environmental health official at the Department of Public Health.  "It sounds like something toward the end of the production line and something perhaps in the bottling itself, any area where something is introduced," Condon said.  The contamination is an anomaly for the nationally recognized, family-owned dairy that, in 2001, received the National Dairy Quality Regional Award for U.S. dairy producers, ranking Whittier Farms among the top dairy farms in the Northeast.

While tests on the coffee-flavored bottle of milk were positive for listeria, samples taken from nine other bottles were negative.  Dairy industry representatives were surprised listeria would be found in pasteurized milk since pasteurization is meant to kill germs.  "Dairy products are among the safest products on the shelf, because they are pasteurized,” said Jenny Bourbeau, spokeswoman for the New England Dairy & Food Council, an industry organization.

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.

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