The latest outbreak associated with raw milk has put a toddler and two young teens from the Portland metro area in the hospital with E. coli poisoning, two with kidney failure.
A fourth child — also under 15 — fell ill but was not hospitalized.
All of them were sickened by E. coli O157:H7, one of the deadliest foodborne pathogens.
Officials from Oregon Public Health said Friday the children consumed raw milk from Foundation Farm, a family run operation in Wilsonville. At least seven other people who drank the farm’s raw milk — adults and children — have developed either diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, a sign of E. coli O157:H7.
The outbreak could grow. Foundation Farm, which agreed to stop production, sold raw milk to 48 families in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties through a herd-sharing program. By Friday afternoon, state epidemiologists had only interviewed about half of them.
Dr. Katrina Hedberg, state epidemiologist, said anyone with the farm’s raw milk or products made from the milk should throw them out.
A total of 20 states nationwide ban the sale of raw milk and 13 restrict sales. Oregon allows retail distribution of raw goat’s milk but not raw cow or sheep’s milk, which can only be sold directly to consumers at farms with no more than two producing cows and a maximum of nine producing sheep.
Foundation Farm has four cows, three that are lactating. But the farm is not breaking the law because herd-sharing programs are not regulated, said Bruce Pokarney, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
“There is no sale going on technically,” he said. “The people who have shares of the herd own the cows. That milk is their milk. It’s as if they are living on the farm.”
The company is owned by Bradley Salyers, according to a filing with the Oregon Secretary of State. The company took down its website, and Salyers could not be reached Friday for comment.
State epidemiologists learned about the two cases of hemolytic-uremic syndrome — a type of kidney failure — — on Wednesday. They scrambled to discover the cause. When raw milk emerged as a common factor, they warned the public.
“There are laws that prohibit the retail sale (of raw milk) because this is not a safe product,” Hedberg said. “People think there is a controversy. There is no controversy. People routinely used to get sick from raw milk.”
A report published this month by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that between 1993 and 2006 a total of 930 people fell ill after consuming raw milk, including 71 who were hospitalized. In other outbreaks during the same period associated with raw milk cheese, 641 were sickened, including 131 who were hospitalized. Two people died after eating raw milk cheese.
CDC and other food safety experts have long warned the public to only consume milk products that are pasteurized, which kills harmful foodborne bacteria.
Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney specializing in food poisoning cases, has represented 25 people sickened by raw milk since 2005. A year later, he was hired by the family of two boys — 6 and 9 — who fell ill after drinking organic raw milk from a farm in Fresno, Calif. He said their families have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on medical bills.
“They had acute kidney failure and are at risk of having kidney transplants when they’re in their teens,” he said.
Another one of his cases, a woman who drank raw milk from a farm in northern California, is paralyzed, he said.
“There is anecdotal evidence that (raw milk) tastes better and cures allergies but on balance when you have kids who suffer kidney failure or a woman who’s a quadripalegic, to me it doesn’t seem that any possible benefits outweigh the risks,” he said.
Hedberg said there are no nutritional benefits to drinking raw milk.
“Why people believe it’s somehow safer to not heat or kill harmful bacteria is unclear to me,” she said.
State epidemiologists are still investigating the outbreak. Hedberg said the farm has sold raw milk through its herd-sharing program for at least a year. This is the first time that customers have been known to become sick.