State releases raw-milk report

Published: October 16, 2008

By Nicholas Grube

Triplicate staff writer

Source of Article:

Health officials have released their findings from an investigation into a campylobacter outbreak that sickened more than a dozen people in Del Norte County who consumed unpasteurized milk from Alexandre Family EcoDairy Farms.

The final report from the California Department of Public Health shows the bacterial infection that occurred in May and June sickened 16 people and did not discriminate among those who consumed the product.

Those who became ill ranged from 4 to 70, and were split between male and female. And it didn't matter if the person ingesting raw milk was a long-time, daily consumer or a first-time drinker.

"Drinking raw milk always carries a risk of illness for bacterial infection," said Dr. Amy Karon, an epidemic intelligence service officer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who helped prepare the report.

"That goes for people of all ages and genders," she said. "People can still become sick from drinking raw milk contaminated with bacteria and that's what we saw in this outbreak."

There was one person who tested positive for campylobacter who denied drinking raw milk. This person, however, was an employee of the organic dairy who worked closely with the cows.

Two people who showed symptoms of campylobacter were hospitalized during the outbreak. One was released after an overnight stay, the other remains severely ill after developing a rare neurological disorder commonly associated with campylobacter.

This woman, Mari Tardiff, of Crescent City, works at the county's Department of Public Health, and she drank raw milk for the first time three days before becoming sick.

Though she did not test positive for campylobacter, subsequent testing of the product taken from her refrigerator discovered the bacteria's DNA in it. Another person in her household also became sick from drinking the milk.

Tardiff's attorney, William Marler, said legal action against the dairy is pending, as his client is still recovering from her illness. He said he is working with both the Alexandre EcoDairy's attorney and insurance company to come to a possible resolution.

"She's still not doing well. She is still ventilator-dependent," Marler said of Tardiff. "Although she's in rehabilitation now and out of the hospital, she's in for a long haul of rehabilitation."

Shortly after drinking raw milk, Tardiff came down with symptoms consistent with a campylobacter infection, such as diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever and vomiting. Afterward she developed a form of Guillain-Barré syndrome, which caused her to become partially paralyzed and forced her to stay in an intensive care unit in Medford, Ore., where she was placed on a mechanical ventilator.

She remained on the ventilator until Sept. 16, more than three months after developing symptoms.

Marler said Tardiff is now back in Crescent City, living in a "nursing home setting" where she is trying to wean herself off the ventilator.

"It's pretty nasty," Marler said, "and it's all because she drank milk that she thought was going to be healthy for her."

Many people who drink raw, unpasteurized milk say there are health benefits to consuming the product because it contains beneficial microbes that aide in digestion and provide increased nutrition.

Most health officials disagree and urge people not to drink raw milk because of the inherent risks involved as bacteria like salmonella, E. coli and listeria can be found in milk that has not been pasteurized.

Del Norte County Public Health Officer Thomas Martinelli, who was part of the investigation into the campylobacter outbreak, said he does not recommend the consumption of raw milk by anyone.

He said it is easily contaminated, especially with campylobacter, which is commonly found in the feces of most domesticated animals, including cats and dogs.

"You go to most dairies in the country and most milk will be infected with campylobacter before it's pasteurized," Martinelli said. "It's a known entity that's frequently in raw milk."

The investigation did not find campylobacter in Alexandre EcoDairy's raw milk tanks, but those inspections were performed in July, two months after the first symptoms were reported.

Martinelli said he suspects more than 16 people contracted campylobacter during the outbreak. Many people, he said, could have contracted the bacteria but not shown symptoms, similar to a flu that sickens some but not others.

He said he also suspects not everyone was telling public health officials the truth during the investigation.

"We know this outbreak was at least 16 people. But we also know that there were likely more than 16 people infected," Martinelli said. "We know that not everybody was being honest with us because some people were trying to protect the dairy."

It's estimated that hundreds of people could have been exposed to campylobacter during the May and June outbreak, as there were 115 households signed up for Alexandre EcoDairy's cow-sharing program that provided access to raw milk.

It is this distribution method that is now the subject of some scrutiny.

A recommendation at the end of the California Department of Public Health report is to "survey all California dairies for cow-leasing programs, and consider measures to prevent similar outbreaks."

In California, it's illegal to sell or distribute raw milk unless it meets strict regulatory standards set by the state. Today, the California Department of Food and Agriculture says there are only two dairies in the state that meet these guidelines, Organic Pastures in Fresno and Claraville Farm in Paicines.

"Raw milk is legal in California as long as it meets the regulatory structure that is in place," Department of Food and Agriculture Spokesman Steve Lyle said. "They have to be licensed and regularly inspected and pass a series of inspections and tests."

Alexandre EcoDairy skirted these guidelines by creating a cow-leasing program that allowed customers to buy a share, or stock, in one of its cows. This gave people partial ownership of the animal, and allowed the dairy to distribute the product since it is not unlawful to take raw milk from your own animal.

According to Lyle, Alexandre EcoDairy had the only known cow-leasing operation in California.

The owners of the family-operated organic dairy, Blake and Stephanie Alexandre, voluntarily shut down the program in June after learning about Mari Tardiff's illness. This helped them avoid any disciplinary measures from local or state authorities.

Stephanie Alexandre referred a request for comment on the state report to her husband, who could not be reached Wednesday.

While not saying that cow-sharing is illegal, Lyle said the Department of Food and Agriculture would monitor Alexandre Dairy if it decided to start distributing raw milk again.

"We sent a letter to the dairy back in July basically saying if they chose to distribute raw milk that there were a number of steps that had to be followed to do it legally," Lyle said. "If we learned that the distribution of raw milk was to resume at that dairy we would investigate."

He also said if Food and Agriculture officials learn of other raw milk operations in the state that his department would likely investigate to determine it they are legal.

The implications of the state Department of Public Health's recommendation at the end of its report are unclear.

June Iljana, a spokesperson for the agency, said the department will work with other state and federal agencies and industry authorities to examine the health risks of raw milk that are associated with cow-leasing programs.

"We're always asking questions and we're always evaluating our potential reactions in response to public health threats," Iljana said. "We are definitely looking critically at everything as far as public health risks go."

She said she didn't know if this will result in changes in regulations.

"This is a significant policy question that takes a lot of coordination between our department and our partners," Iljana said. "This isn't something we make a decision about quickly."




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