The Oregon Public Health Division, Department of Agriculture and several local Oregon health departments are investigating an outbreak of Escherichia coli O157:H7 (E. coli) infections that have left three Portland-area children hospitalized, two with hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a complication of E. coli infection that can lead to kidney failure. All of these children drank raw milk from the same small farm: Foundation Farm in Clackamas County. According to news reports the number of ill are at least 11. The farm has voluntarily ceased its milk distribution to customers in Clackamas, Multnomah, and Washington counties.
According to news reports over the last week, Missouri state health officials have confirmed 13 E. coli cases in Boone, Cooper, Howard, Camden and Jackson counties. Health officials say a 2-year-old girl a 17-month-old child developed HUS, and while not all nine E. coli cases have been clearly attributed to raw milk consumption, investigators say consumption of raw dairy products is a “possible” factor in some of the cases.
Following is a Q&A with attorney Bill Marler, who has represented thousands of victims of foodborne illness, including dozens who became ill with E. coli and Campylobacter infections after drinking raw milk.
Q: Pasteurization of milk was lauded as one of the biggest public health successes of the 20th Century. Why are so many people turning away from pasteurized milk and seeking out sources of “raw”, or unpasteurized milk?
A: People have been turning toward raw milk for a variety of reasons. Some believe pasteurization kills beneficial bacteria and enzymes in milk. Others have heard that raw milk consumption can cure asthma, eczema, or attention deficit disorder (ADD). A parent will go to almost any lengths to provide what they believe is the most wholesome source of nutrients for their child, and well-presented misinformation about the purported health benefits of drinking raw milk abounds on the Internet so it’s really difficult for a consumer – even a really smart one – who is desperate to find a remedy to his or her child’s medical condition to discern fact from fiction when it comes to raw milk.
I think, too, that there’s an inherent distrust of government, so when the government or big agriculture tells people not to feed their kids raw milk it’s easy for people to ignore that advice. Especially when they can afford the $16 a gallon.
Q: Whole Foods and some other stores that sell many natural food products have stopped selling raw milk. Why?
A: Whole Foods and Seattle-area co-op PCC stopped selling raw milk products just over 2 years ago for a couple of reasons. One reason was because unpasteurized milk is considered a high risk food, especially for children, pregnant women, an immunocompromised people – like people receiving cancer treatment, or those with HIV. Another was because the liability insurance necessary to cover multi-million dollar HUS cases is not inexpensive.
Q: You started raising your own chickens a couple of years ago, after a Salmonella outbreak traced to eggs. Would you ever consider buying a cow or a goat and drinking its milk?
A: Interesting question. I grew up on a small farm and drank a bit of raw milk 40 years ago, however, today raw milk is simply too dangerous in part because of sanitation issues. Cows, goats and sheep all defecate very close to where their milk is produced, allowing for a high probability for fecal contamination during the milking process to ever drink milk produced by this hypothetical new addition to my family. In theory, I could home pasteurize milk produced by this animal and safely consume it, but I would still be responsible for cleaning up after it, and that would mean handling feces potentially contaminated with E. coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter or other pathogens. I’ll leave that work to someone else with better skills and continue buying organic pasteurized milk from my local store.
Q: What would you tell someone who was contemplating a purchase of raw milk?
A: The first thing I would say is, “Please, I beg you, don’t feed it to your kids.” Any adult contemplating a purchase of raw milk to consume individually should be educated about the risks associated with consuming unpasteurized dairy products. Real Raw Milk Facts was inspired by discussions following presentations related to the increasing popularity of raw milk. It was developed and reviewed by scientists and health educators in universities, government, industry, and professional organizations, and is supported in part by Marler Clark. The Hot Topics section presents the facts about commonly asked questions related to raw milk consumption.
Bottom line – be informed and forewarned.