An E. Coli outbreak earlier this month in California has raised concerns for public health officials in West Virginia who say the likely cause is on track to become legal in the Mountain State this year.
Five of the eight people identified in the recent outbreak were found to have consumed raw milk produced by Organic Pastures Dairy Co., and an investigation into the outbreak is ongoing, according to the California Department of Public Health. A bill allowing the consumption of raw milk passed the state Senate earlier this month and is scheduled for its second reading Monday in the House of Delegates, where it is also expected to pass.
The latest version of the bill does not allow for the direct sale of raw milk, but instead would let people purchase shares in a milk-producing animal and receive milk from that animal, an arrangement known as “herdsharing.” Those who purchase shares are also required to sign a document acknowledging the health risks, and animals would need to have passed health tests within the past year.
The California dairy at the center of the outbreak goes further, requiring that milk be tested for strains of certain diseases before it is distributed for sale. The milk involved in the Organic Pastures outbreak may have returned a “false positive” in spite of being tested multiple times — the owner of the California dairy acknowledged that the test-and-hold procedure at the dairy does not guarantee that pathogens are not present in the raw milk.
Dr. Loretta Haddy, director of the Office of Epidemiology and Prevention Services for West Virginia's Bureau for Public Health, said that's because the potential for contaminating raw milk exists at nearly every stage of its production.
“Milk contamination may occur in numerous ways, such as cow feces coming into direct contact with the milk, infection of the cow's udder, cow diseases or bacteria that live on the skin of cows or from the environment through feces, dirt, unclean processing equipment, insects, rodents and other animal vectors,” Haddy said. “Additionally, there is risk of cross contamination by humans from soiled clothing and boots.”
Dr. Michael Brumage, health officer at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said even testing the milk wouldn't ensure its safety, and the process of pasteurizing milk does nothing to its nutritional value.
“I don't see why we would take a less stringent approach, even if we were to sell raw milk in the state. I think everybody in public health is opposed, unequivocally, to selling anything but pasteurized milk to the public,” Brumage said. “There is information on the Internet that suggests raw milk has benefits beyond what pasteurized milk has, but that has been studied, and reputable studies looking at the nutritional value of both found there was no benefit to drinking raw milk over pasteurized.”
Brumage said he is especially concerned for children, the immune-suppressed and pregnant women, all of whom are more vulnerable to infection.
“There's a lot of fuss made in the Legislature about life in utero, but we know that diseases like listeria, for example, cause stillbirths and miscarriages,” Brumage said. “Listeria causes potential harm to fetuses in utero, so why would we even consider doing something like this?”
The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American Association of Public Health Veterinarians, the National Milk Producers Federation and the International Dairy Foods Association openly oppose passage of raw milk legislation, Haddy said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 148 outbreaks occurred between 1998 and 2011 related to the consumption of raw milk or raw milk products. Those outbreaks resulted in 2,384 illnesses, 284 hospitalizations and two deaths. According to Haddy, states that allow raw milk sales report significantly more outbreaks than those that do not.
West Virginia has investigated two outbreaks of Campylobacter in the last five years associated with consumption of raw milk obtained from a dairy in western Pennsylvania, Haddy said.
“I cannot understand why we would knowingly put people's health at risk,” Brumage said, “for something with no nutritional benefit over pasteurized milk.”
Reach Lydia Nuzum at email@example.com, 304-348-5189 or follow @lydianuzum on Twitter.