Friday, June 13, 2008

Organic Pastures, Happy Cows & E. coli O157:H7

When a large, multi-state food poisoning outbreak is in progress, it's easy for a second outbreak to go virtually unnoticed, especially when the same microbe – in this case E. coli O157:H7 – is responsible for both. That's what would have happened in 2006, except for the vigilance of California's health authorities and the technology of microbiological "fingerprinting".

On September 8, 2006, Wisconsin health authorities reported to CDC that they had identified a small cluster of E. coli O157:H7 illnesses – all due to the identical strain of the microbe. Within a week, Oregon and New Mexico were added to the list of affected states, and the source of the outbreaks had been traced to bagged spinach.

The 2006 spinach outbreak had begun. Ultimately, 199 people in 26 states would report an illness with the outbreak strain. Just over one-half (102) of the victims would be hospitalized, and 31 would develop kidney failure and other consequences of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). Three people would die.

While the spinach outbreak was in full bloom, the California Department of Health Services received reports of five children who had been infected with E. coli O157:H7. Two of the children were hospitalized, one of them suffering from HUS. A sixth child was also hospitalized with HUS, but E. coli O157:H7 was not lab-confirmed.

The E. coli O157:H7 cultures obtained from the five lab-confirmed victims matched each other, but had a different molecular fingerprint from the microbe that was behind the spinach outbreak. When investigators questioned the victims and their parents, they quickly found a common link. All six children had consumed raw milk or (in one case) raw colostrum from Organic Pastures Dairy Co., California's largest producer of organic raw milk for retail sale.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture, on September 21st, ordered a state-wide recall of Organic Pastures' whole and skim raw milk, raw cream and raw colostrum, and barred the company from producing raw milk. The production quarantine was lifted on September 29th, but the company was still forbidden from bottling its milk and cream for retail sale.

The owner of Organic Pastures, Mark McAfee, has always denied that his dairy was responsible for the six illnesses. In a telephone interview reported by at the time of the outbreak, McAfee claimed he had been told that some of the children had eaten spinach and undercooked hamburger. And he contended that one of those foods had made them ill – despite the lab evidence that the children were infected with a different strain of E. coli O157:H7 than the one responsible for the spinach outbreak.

But Mark McAfee is an honorable man, and we should believe him.
The Organic Pastures web site boasts that "In more than 32 million servings, and more than five years of intensive testing, not one single pathogen has been found or detected. Not one person has complained to the state of CA that they have become sickened by an OPDC product."

Yet victims of the 2006 outbreak specifically reported drinking Organic Pastures raw milk and raw colostrum. And California ordered a recall of Organic Pastures raw cream in 2007 after finding Listeria monocytogenes in a sample.

But Mark McAfee is an honorable man, and we should believe him.
After California lifted its quarantine order, McAfee celebrated his exoneration. In his opinion, without the State having found the outbreak strain in his milk, in his dairy environment, or in his cows, there was no evidence that Organic Pastures was responsible for the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak.

According to the CDC report released this week, however, the production lot that was linked to the outbreak was no longer available for testing. Also, non-outbreak strains of the microbe were recovered from the dairy herd.

But Mark McAfee is an honorable man, and we should believe him.
Organic Pastures claims that the total bacterial counts in its raw milk are consistently below the State's limit of 15,000 bacteria per milliliter – even during the period covered by the 2006 outbreak. The State lab, though, found numerous samples containing counts in excess of the 15,000 limit – several of them in excess of 1,000,000 per milliliter.

Organic Pastures implies that its products have been negative for E. coli O157:H7 since 2002; however, the pdf file accessed from the same web page shows that testing for the pathogen only began about one month before the start of the 2006 outbreak.

But Mark McAfee is an honorable man, and we should believe him.
FDA prohibits the interstate sale of raw milk for human consumption. Organic Pastures says on its web site that it does not ship raw milk to customers outside of California. McAfee has exploited a loophole in the FDA regulations, which treat raw colostrum as a
“non-dairy dietary supplement." Organic Pastures' Superlite Colostrum, containing 95% raw milk and 5% raw colostrum, is shipped to customers nationwide.

But Mark McAfee is an honorable man, and we should believe him.

Or should we believe the families of five children who were sickened in the 2006 outbreak and who have filed lawsuits against Mark McAfee?

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