An outbreak of E. coli bacteria that has sickened 11 or more people, four critically, has been linked to a dairy that was ordered by Washington state in August to stop selling raw milk.
Dee Creek Farm in Woodland, Wash., accused of defying the order, is being investigated by at least four state and local agencies, and investigators asked that all of those who consumed milk from the dairy contact their local health departments, regardless of whether they are or have recently been ill.
“This is a very serious infection and disease, and these kids are having serious complications,'” said Marnie Storey, nursing director for prevention of infectious diseases for neighboring Clark County. “There have been deaths associated with this disease elsewhere. We’re really concerned for these children and hoping the best for them.”
Cowlitz County prosecutors said that misdemeanor charges could be filed if the owners, Anita and Michael Puckett, don’t provide a list of customers who purchased raw milk.
The Pucketts canceled an inspection by the state Agriculture Department, telling officials they planned to consult a lawyer. The couple did not return messages left by The Columbian newspaper in Vancouver, Wash., about 20 miles south of the farm.
Eight E. coli sickness cases were confirmed in Clark and Cowlitz counties, all in children aged 5 to 14, and three apparent but unconfirmed cases were reported in nearby Clatsop County, Ore. Four of the Washington state children were listed in critical condition in area hospitals Wednesday night.
Health officials would not identify any of those who were affected but Paul Beyers of Vancouver said one was his daughter, Nicole Beyers, 13. He said she had improved slightly and she was listed in fair condition Wednesday night at Legacy Emanuel Hospital in Portland, Ore.
The popularity of raw milk has grown in some quarters amid concern over genetically modified food and the use of hormones in livestock.
Most people can drink raw milk without problems, but lack of adequate sanitation can result in contamination with E. coli and other bacteria. Pasteurization, which kills the bacteria, also reduces some of the nutritional qualities, supporters of raw milk say.
“Obviously, cows defecate,” said Dr. Emilio DeBess, a public health veterinarian with Oregon Health Services. “Sometimes, the fecal material contaminates the area of the udder of the cow. Even though you try to clean that area pretty well before you actually start milking, the possibility of contamination is very high.”
Selling raw milk is illegal in many states, including Oregon, and is legal in Washington only with a license and warning labels on bottles containing raw milk.
Six Washington dairies hold licenses to sell raw milk, five issued this year.
State Agriculture Department officials read in the Portland Tribune in August that Dee Creek was distributing raw milk, then sent the operators a license application and a letter in August telling them to stop unless they had a license, agency Spokesman Michael W. Louisell said.
Dee Creek responded that the farm was not selling raw milk but was distributing the product under a cow-share program in which consumers buy shares in an animal in exchange for part of the milk, Louisell said.
Claudia G. Coles, the state agency’s food safety officer, said a license is required to distribute raw milk through a cow-share program.
Otherwise, she said, “they are violating Washington state law.”
The department publishes a brochure about raw milk that states cow shares “may not be used as a means to avoid meeting state requirements for milk producers and milk processors, including obtaining the required license.”
Hilary Gillette-Walch, a Cowlitz County Health Department epidemiologist, said the Pucketts told her they have cow contracts with 45 families.
Two agriculture safety officers went to the farm Tuesday but spent little time with the Pucketts, who said they were leaving to get themselves tested for E. coli.
The investigators planned to return Wednesday, but the Pucketts called before they arrived and canceled the inspection, saying they planned to speak with a lawyer, Coles said.
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