FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — State officials on Wednesday upheld a recall and quarantine of raw milk products from a California dairy after three children were sent to hospitals with E.coli poisoning in the nation's latest outbreak related to the unpasteurized product.
The ruling came at a hearing by the California Department of Food and Agriculture after the owner of Organic Pastures Dairy Co. appealed for the recall to be lifted.
"This happened two to three months ago and all of our milk, including the milk these kids actually drank, is testing fine," company owner Mark McAfee said.
The company sells 2,400 gallons of raw milk a day in California. It does not ship any milk products to other states.
Consumer demand for raw milk has soared in recent years, leading several states to adopt stricter standards to regulate the milk and crack down on unlicensed farmers selling it to friends and neighbors.
Thirty states currently allow some sort of raw milk sales.
Raw milk enthusiasts such as McAfee say pasteurization kills bacteria beneficial to human health and argue that raw milk is medicinal and can treat everything from asthma to autism.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, warns that raw milk can cause illness or death, with infants, the elderly, pregnant women and those with weak immune systems especially vulnerable.
From 1998 through 2008, the CDC reported 1,676 illnesses due to consumption of raw milk or raw milk products. No deaths were reported.
However, two deaths occurred due to consumption of queso fresco — cheese made with unpasteurized milk. During the same time period, pasteurized milk products caused 2,494 illnesses and four deaths.
The California Department of Food and Agriculture said laboratory samples of Organic Pastures raw milk had not detected the strain of E. coli that sickened the children. Samples of the milk actually consumed by the children also didn't reveal E.coli.
However, interviews with the families of five children infected with the strain between August and October indicated the only common food exposure in the two weeks before illness was to Organic Pastures raw milk, state officials said. Since raw milk consumption is not common in the general population, officials said, it was unlikely that chance alone would explain the findings, the officials said.
The sickened children are residents of Contra Costa, Kings, Sacramento and San Diego counties.
Three of the children were hospitalized with a condition that may lead to kidney failure. The California Department of Public Health said the most recent one became ill on Oct. 25. Officials said they could not release information on whether the children remain in hospitals or their conditions due to confidentiality.
Federal law prohibits the sale of raw milk across state lines but does allow states to regulate its sale within their borders. California permits the retail sale of unpasteurized milk from only two licensed facilities.
Raw milk is not pasteurized, a process that involves heating milk to 161 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 seconds.
Organic Pastures is currently undergoing a complete inspection and must be found to meet all state sanitation requirements before the quarantine can be lifted, said California Department of Food and Agriculture spokesman Steve Lyle.
The agency tests the company's products on a monthly basis, Lyle said.
In addition, McAfee said his company tests the products several times a week through an independent lab. All of the samples associated with the investigation thus far have been negative for E.coli, Lyle and McAfee said.
The company is cooperating with the investigation, McAfee said. But the quarantine should be lifted, he said, because it's too early in the investigation to know the cause of the problem.
It's the second time the Fresno County dairy has been the subject of a recall.
In 2006, Organic Pastures was ordered to stop selling unpasteurized milk products after four children were sickened with E.coli and three were hospitalized. Officials did not find any pathogens at the dairy and the company was allowed to sell the milk again.