UPDATE: Source of infection in Missouri's E. coli cases not confirmed

Tuesday, April 17, 2012 | 11:50 a.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Six of Missouri's 13 recent confirmed cases of E. coli have been linked to the consumption of unpasteurized milk or raw dairy products from a farm in Howard County, although the source of the infection has not been confirmed, state health officials said Monday.

The remaining seven people with confirmed E. coli infections did not report consuming raw dairy from the farm, state health officials told The Columbia Daily Tribune on Monday.

"The investigation is ongoing, and the source of the infection has not been confirmed," said Gena Terlizzi, spokeswoman for Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. She said all potential sources of exposure were being considered.

The 13 E. coli cases were in Boone, Camden, Clark, Cooper, Howard and Jackson counties. A 2-year-old child in Boone County has been hospitalized for two weeks, but no other hospitalizations were reported.

Eric and Joanna Reuter, who own a certified organic farm in northern Boone County, Chert Hollow Farm, criticized Monday's announcement, alleging that state and Boone County health officials have a bias against raw dairy products. They said health departments have rushed to judgment in the past, forcing some small farms to go out of business or destroy large quantities of food. The couple's farm produces food for 30 families, and those customers also can buy raw goat's milk.

Small farms can lose sales and their reputations because of "raw milk paranoia," Eric Reuter said, but health departments don't suffer consequences if their facts aren't right.

"There's no mechanism for fighting back," he said.

The Reuters don't claim raw milk is safe to drink, and they won't sell it unless the buyer signs a waiver saying the milk will be pasteurized or cooked to make it safe for such things as cheese-making or baking. The Food and Drug Administration recommends home pasteurization to heat the milk to 161 degrees for 15 seconds or 145 degrees for 30 minutes.

The Reuters said they wish announcements such as Monday's that link raw dairy products to diseases would focus on educating consumers about the safe use of raw milk.

"We advocate the sale of raw milk, not the consumption of raw milk," Joanna Reuter said. "With educated customers who know how to handle it, it's fine."

Missouri law allows farmers to sell raw milk or cream at the farm where it originated or after being delivered to a customer. The Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services is opposed to a proposed law that would allow producers to sell raw milk at farmers markets.

Eric Reuter accused the Columbia/Boone County health department of having "an agenda against raw milk."

"We do have an agenda," said Geni Alexander, spokesman for the health department. "It's protecting the health and safety of the community."

Health department director Stephanie Browning said the department's public announcements are based on "good science" and detailed investigation.

"I don't view this as an 'us versus them.'

I'm a big believer in trying to buy my food locally," Browning said.

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Kevin Gamble April 17, 2012 | 3:44 p.m.

Glad to see that some degree of restraint is now appearing in the public statements and reporting surrounding this issue. As we've seen from the many widespread cases of illness involving industrial-ag-produced products in recent years, hypothetical health risks are present in all types of agriculture, and have in fact been far more damaging in "safe" operations that have received the official stamp of approval.

Consumption of raw dairy is not a meaningless activity. Many believe it provides significant nutritional and health benefits compared to other forms of production, and many have experienced those benefits. I and my family have consumed raw dairy products for several years now, without one single problematic incident and also without the degree of everyday side effects that can accompany ingesting of factory dairy.

It's tragic, to me, that demonstrably safe practices that support local farmers and community are policed so ruthlessly, while store shelves are full of artificial products that are directly linked to all manner of serious health problems. I understand the motives of health departments, and agree that everyone should be very careful and informed about the dietary choices they make. But this isn't a black-and-white issue.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking April 17, 2012 | 6:10 p.m.

Kevin Gamble wrote:

"have in fact been far more damaging in "safe" operations that have received the official stamp of approval."

That's mostly because industrial scale food production affects far more people. Very few people drink raw milk, or even buy local produce. I tend to think the health department should not have said anything until they finish following up on the actual sources of the infections (cow poop, undoubtedly, but how, where, and when is the important part), but it's certainly possible to get an E. coli infection by drinking raw milk.

There's no method of food production that's totally safe. It's importsnt to recognize the overwhelming hazard of food-borne disease is microbiological, and to store and cook foods properly. The main hazard from a lot of store bought food is it's too salty, sugary, and full of fat (same with a lot of restaurant foods). But people like them, and tend to eat way too many of them. "Chemicals and preservatives" are not a significant health hazard. Overeating and lack of exercise are.


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