The shocking story of an outbreak of E. coli O157 infection associated with the consumption of raw milk came to my attention as a result of a story on US Food Safety. Nine children became ill after drinking raw milk from a farm in Knox County, in a state where it is illegal to sell unpasteurised milk. Five of those children require hospital treatment and three went on to develop the severe, and irreversible, consequences of haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS).
The Tennessee Department of Health confirmed today that the strain of E.coli that caused nine children to become ill after drinking raw milk obtained from a farm near Knoxville has been matched to animal waste collected at the dairy.
This has been a major outbreak investigation for the environmental health team in Knox County, with the investigation involving an on-site inspection of the farm, interviews of 88 households that purchased milk from the farm and laboratory analysis of samples and materials to compare bacterial strains.
So how come the raw milk was on sale to the public? Answer: technically, it wasn’t. Under Tennessee law, provided you own a cow – or one of her legs, udders or horns – you can drink her milk raw.
The farm at the centre of this public health scam is the McBee Dairy Farm, which divides up the production of a cow into twenty “shares”, each available for a one-time subscription of $20 and a monthly “boarding fee” of $30. For that, the lucky share-milker gets one gallon of milk, two sticks of butter, one pint of cream or one quart of yogurt a week. Bear in mind that’s a US gallon, which is only 6.6 pints or 3.8 litres. The farm then looks after all the mucky bits of dairying for the share-holder.
The McBee Dairy Farm run what would translate into European parlance as a high-welfare, possible organic, operation, which can only be good for the animals and is a thoroughly laudable objective. The problem comes from believing that you can avoid the risk of E. coli contamination of milk without the safeguard of pasteurisation. E. coli O157 and other toxic strains of E. coli are capable of causing infection with very low numbers of bacteria, possibly as few as ten bacterial cells, which in technical parlance, is bugger all. This means that, even in the most hygienic operation, the slightest contamination with faecal matter can make a batch of milk unsafe, and it may not even be picked up by routine microbiological sampling because bacteria are not necessarily evenly distributed through a volume of milk.
Most people are not susceptible to E. coli infection, or if they do succumb, will generally get over the illness. Even then, it’s not nice; profuse bloody diarrhoea and fever for several days will be your lot. For the elderly, the very young, or the immune-compromised, it’s a very different story. These are the people who are likely to be killed or very seriously injured by the infection. And kidney damage from HUS is irreversible. Survivors are likely to require dialysis all their lives, or even a succession of kidney transplants as a consequence.
It’s a great fad, to think that natural is somehow best, but we have forgotten the massive toll of illness, death and misery that comes from food-borne – and particularly milk-borne – infections. Pasteurisation of milk has saved countless millions of lives since its invention. It’s a relatively kind process compared with others, and, yes, it does alter the taste of milk. But it saves lives.
I can’t finish this post without recording my shock at the website of the McBee Dairy Farm. It is plastered with bible references and the statement:
- Real Milk is not pasteurized.
- Real Milk is not homogenized.
- Real Milk can save family farms.
- Real Milk products contain no additives.
- Real Milk contains no hormones or antibiotics.
- Real Milk–The way God Intended it.
The irony is that the reason these strains of E. coli are so virulent and dangerous, is that they have evolved and assimilated the genes that produce the Shiga toxin from Shigellae bacteria. Perhaps, real pathogens, the way God intended, should be added to that motto.
Good intentions are one thing. Good food safety requires a sight more than that.