Illness halts raw milk program

(Daily Triplicate, CA)

By Nicholas Grube

 

Alexandre Family EcoDairy Farms ended its raw milk program after several people who consumed the product got sick, including one Crescent City woman who remains in intensive care and is partially paralyzed.

 

The Del Norte County Department of Public Health suspects at least 15 people who ingested raw milk contracted Campylobacter, a common bacteria found in domesticated animals that can cause gastrointestinal illness.

 

Raw milk essentially comes straight from the udder and has become popular among health-conscious consumers. It is unpasteurized, and advocates say it contains beneficial microbes that help in digestion and provide increased nutrition.

 

Three cases of Campylobacter infections have been documented by Del Norte County health officials since late June, and the other 12 are awaiting confirmation.

 

The Crescent City woman was the only person who became severely ill.

 

The outbreak occurred around May 10 to June 5, and officials say it is no longer a risk to the public because the source of the raw milk believed to have caused the infections—Alexandre EcoDairy north of Fort Dick—voluntarily stopped the program.

 

"As far as we know the outbreak of Campylobacter has been controlled and the source of raw milk has been shut down," said county Public Health Officer Thomas Martinelli.

 

About 115 people were signed up for Alexandre EcoDairy's raw milk program. Martinelli said the number of people who actually consumed the product could be 300-500 since it was distributed to family members.

 

"It depends on how many people are in the family," he said. "It would be some multiple of 115."

 

Alexandre EcoDairy stopped the program June 15 after learning one of its customers had become seriously ill and was in a Medford, Ore., hospital. The family-owned organic farm contacted each of its raw milk customers to tell them the news.

 

"We immediately stopped when somebody got sick," owner Blake Alexandre said. "We were absolutely concerned that there could have been a connection."

 

The woman who became sick initially showed symptoms common with a Campylobacter infection, Martinelli said. This included episodes of abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting.

 

She later developed a form of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disorder that makes a person's immune system attack the peripheral nervous system and can result in paralysis.

 

The syndrome is rare, but when it does occur it often is associated with a Campylobacter infection, medical studies have found.

 

Sources identified the sick woman as Mari Tardiff of Crescent City. Her husband, veterinarian Peter Tardiff, confirmed her identity Friday but declined to comment further. She is still hospitalized in a Medford, Ore., intensive care unit.

 

The Del Norte County Health Department officially learned of Mari Tardiff's illness in late June

when medical staff in Medford contacted Martinelli with a diagnosis.

 

"That's what alerted us to looking at the milk share program; we knew she had consumed raw milk," Martinelli said. "It alerted us that there could be something else going on in this community."

 

Upon further investigation, Martinelli said he found 14 other people who might have suffered Campylobacter infections from raw milk, and that it all appeared to come from the same source.

 

No public health notice was issued because Alexandre EcoDairy had already voluntarily shut down its raw milk program, he said.

 

"They did that on their own before we started investigating the possible correlation between raw milk and the outbreak," Martinelli said. "There was no threat any longer to public safety."

 

A number of Alexandre EcoDairy's raw milk customers still support the program, many of them standing by the product's nutritional and, in some cases, curative properties.

 

Christine Mitchell of Crescent City, 42, drank Alexandre's raw milk for almost two years. Before she started the program, she said her joints ached, especially in her knees.

 

"All my joints were hurting really bad," Mitchell said. "I had trouble walking up stairs."

 

When she began drinking raw milk from Alexandre EcoDairy, she didn't really know if it would help with her joint pain.

 

"I started drinking it and about four months later all of my joint pain was gone," Mitchell said. "That was a huge change in my life."

 

She asked her doctor why raw milk would get rid of her pain, and she said he told her that the enzymes in the product—the ones normally taken out during the pasteurization process—help her body digest the calcium in the milk. Further research convinced Mitchell that raw milk relieved her joint pain.

 

"That's what I was lacking," she said.

 

When Alexandre's raw milk was available, Mitchell said her family, including her four children, would drink 5 gallons a week. They never experienced ill effects, she said.

 

Now Mitchell is struggling to find a new source of raw milk. For nearly two months she hasn't had it and her joints are starting to hurt again. Pasteurized milk, she said, just doesn't compare.

 

"What's the point of drinking pasteurized milk," she asked, "if you can't use the good stuff that's in there?"

 

Stories like Mitchell's are what made the Alexandres start their raw milk program in the first place.

 

"It came about because people were really asking for it and begging for it," Stephanie Alexandre said. "People were coming to us searching for raw milk because it's hard to find."

 

It is illegal to sell raw milk in California, but it is not illegal to get it from your own animal. The Alexandres devised a cow-share program that allowed people to buy stock in an Alexandre cow. That gave them personal ownership of the animal and allowed them to legally take raw milk from Alexandre EcoDairy.

 

Cow-share customers had keys to a storage area where they could also obtain organic eggs, beef, ice cream and cheese.

 

"It was a very well-thought-out program," Alexandre said, but also one that carried dangers.

 

Before customers could join the cow-share program and get the raw milk, Alexandre gave them a three-ring binder full of information. In the first section are a number of articles relaying the dangers of consuming raw milk.

 

Alexandre said she would send people home with the information so they could read it over.

 

"I wanted people to be very clear on the risks," Alexandre said, adding that many times people would take that chance. "They're realizing that the risks are there and they'll realize that the benefits outweigh the risks and they'll come begging for it."

 

To join the cow-share program, customers signed an agreement relieving the eco-dairy of liability in case of health problems caused by raw milk.

 

The raw milk program constituted less than 1 percent of the company's total organic dairy business, according to Blake Alexandre.

 

"We've never done any of this for money," he said. "This is a thing we were doing for folks who thought they needed access to raw milk."

 

The program is not coming back either, he said, because if even one person became sick from drinking his milk it's too much for his and his family's conscience.

 

"It's an unfortunate thing for all of those folks who still want access, but we're not going to turn it back on," he said. "We just can't live with that personally."

 

Alexandre also questions whether the Campylobacter came from his farm. He said he spoke to a person who is listed by the county health department as contracting the infection who said he didn't even drink raw milk during the time of the outbreak.

 

"There's room for doubt," Alexandre said. "Campylobacter is the most common food-borne illness out there."

 

According to the World Health Organization, Campylobacter is a major cause of diarrheal illness in humans.

 

Campylobacter occurs in most warm-blooded domestic animals and the bacteria is prevalent in poultry, cattle and other common farm animals.

 

In addition to drinking raw milk, it can be contracted through eating undercooked meats or by drinking water that has been contaminated by Campylobacter, such as if animal feces with the bacteria in it was in contact with the water.

 

"My understanding and my impression is that we've never found Campylobacter on our dairy," Alexandre said. "We do all we can all the time to protect the cleanliness and integrity of our milk."

 

The county Department of Public Health is still investigating the outbreak, and is working with both state and federal agencies, including the California Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 8-16-08

 

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