Two lawsuits filed against raw-milk dairy Organic Pastures

The Ethicurean has learned that California's leading raw-milk dairy, Organic Pastures, has been named in two personal-injury lawsuits related to a 2006 outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7. Meanwhile, California’s Assembly Agriculture Committee is currently establishing a "blue ribbon commission" to examine whether California’s latest, more stringent coliform requirement has any basis in food-safety science.

The Marler-Clark law firm, which specializes in foodborne illness lawsuits — and whose principal, Bill Marler, blogs regularly and comments here — filed two lawsuits yesterday in Fresno County against Organic Pastures Dairy on behalf of two children sickened during a 2006 E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak. The children, ages 9 and 11, were hospitalized for over a month with hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a complication of infection from E. coli 0157:H7.

Supporting documentation for the suit includes a report from the Infectious Diseases Branch of the Division of Communicable Disease Control in California. Notable in the report is its summary statement:

Six children had E. coli O157:H7 infections and/or HUS. The five available E. coli O157:H7 isolates had identical and unique PFGE patterns supporting a common source of exposure. Five patients consumed raw dairy products from one dairy, and one patient could have consumed raw milk from the same dairy. The environmental investigation at the dairy identified E. coli O157:H7 from three cows but the PFGE patterns of these isolates did not match that of the children. Despite not finding the outbreak strain at this dairy, the source of infection for these children was likely raw milk products produced by the dairy [emphasis added].

E. coli 0157:H7 mutates rapidly, and a fingerprinting technique allows technicians to determine if the particular strain of E. coli came from a common source. There is room for error in this methodology, but in the California case, the specific E. coli 0157:H7 fingerprint was matched in five of the six children. In the sixth child, E. coli 0157: H7 was not found in the stool samples, but this particular child developed HUS, a complication in which E. coli 0157:H7 is the most likely culprit. The six children live in various counties throughout California, so contamination in a home kitchen or at a common birthday party can be ruled out.

In five of the six cases, parents offered to investigators that their children had consumed raw dairy products from Organic Pastures. In the sixth case, the parents denied that the child had recently consumed raw milk, but the report suggests that the family does consume Organic Pastures products. The fingerprint in this child matched the other four cases in which the bacteria was isolated.

As part of a large investigation back in the fall of 2006, California’s state veterinarian tested the stools of the entire herd at Organic Pastures. In a first round of testing, they grouped cows and heifers into groups of three, mixed their stool samples, and tested them for the virulent strain of E. coli 0157:H7. Five composite samples tested positive. Researchers then tested the 15 cows in those five clusters individually and isolated the bacteria in three of them. The report states that the positive animals were “cows” and not “heifers” or “dry cows,” distinctions made elsewhere in the report. We have not been able to confirm if the three cows were milking at the time. The strains isolated in the three cows were not the same as those in the affected children.

The Ethicurean will be following these raw-milk developments closely.

9 Responsesto “Two lawsuits filed against raw-milk dairy Organic Pastures”

  1. Luise says:

    Now I could very well be wrong, but this almost sounds like a framing; bullshitting the evidence, or lack thereof, so raw milk takes the fall. How acceptable will "circumstantial and probable" be in court (if it gets there)? "Guilty beyond a reasonable doubt," anyone?

  2. Amanda Rose says:

    In my opinion, the evidence looks strong enough in this case that we need to do more than brush it off. Raw milk can have pathogens just like everything else I eat and just like this keyboard I am typing on.

    Amanda

  3. Robyn M. says:

    I am curious how pasture-raised cows would come to have this variant of E. coli. It was my understanding that the stomachs of pasture-raised cattle were not hospitable environments for this pathogen. Could it get into a dairy cow's milk somehow, even if it could not survive in the stomach, or am I wrong about my initial premise? Clue me?

  4. Amanda Rose says:

    Hi Robyn. The cows at Organic Pastures get some grain. I'm not sure how much grain (they are out on their pastures all the time). I am also not sure where the line is on how much grain is too much. I think we need to be thinking of the grass diet as protective, but not bullet-proof.

    If the pathogen is in the milk but didn't survive the cow's stomach, it would probably come from another source of contamination (transport, etc). A sick cow could pass infection into the milk but I'm not aware of this strain getting passed from the cow to the milk any way other than from the residue of fecal matter on the udder.

    Amanda

  5. AuLait says:

    Hi, Amanda!

    It's possible that the stool tests used are so sensitive they could pick up even a single bug or two in a sample. If the grass diet simply reduced the numbers to a small handful, it would never be enough to make people sick, but could still show up in some testing. There are tests that work that way and I suspect that's what they used, but don't know that for sure.

    I do agree with you that there can be pathogens in anything, which is why our raw milk is tested for them. But I want to say again -- the report said that spinach could not have caused the illnesses because the isolates did not match, but raw milk had to have caused the illnesses even though those isolates didn't match either. There was no explanation offered as to why the standard of evidence should be different in the two cases.

    That right there caused me to question the motives of the directors of the investigation. Epidemiology 101 says you explore every possibility and you base everything on evidence, not on assumptions. It seems clear to me that in this case, something more than epidemiology was going on.

    The sad thing is, if I'm right, we'll never know what actually made those poor kids sick, because the investigation was dropped as soon as a "likely culprit" showed up -- or a preferred one. I fear it was something else -- all kinds of vegetables that are normally eaten raw come to mind -- and the opportunity to find out what was lost.

    Thanks for your work!

  6. Bonnie P. says:

    AuLait — I wrote a long comment in response to another post (scroll to bottom of link) about the studies around grass-based cattle diets and E. coli. According to my reading, even a couple of E. coli 0157:H7 bugs are enough to make a person sick, and grass-based diets do not mean "no bad E. coli," only lower rates of it, and also strains that are less likely to survive the human digestive system.

    While I think it is certainly important to examine the motives of the investigators — state officials elsewhere have harassed raw-milk dairies to distraction — California's only did so in response to an outbreak. There are only two licensed raw-milk dairies in the state, and to my knowledge anyway, both had previously been on good terms with inspectors.

    I hope that you are right, and that no evidence can be found linking the dairy to the children's illnesses. Because if any evidence of wrongdoing exists, I am pretty darn sure Bill Marler's firm is going to find it.

  7. Amanda Rose says:

    Hi AuLait. I don't see a double standard here with the spinach at all. The isolates didn't match which suggests that the six-child outbreak was not part of the larger spinach outbreak happening at the same time. They had more reason not to hunt down the spinach trail: not all of the children ate spinach. Had the isolates matched they might have been able to say that some got sick from spinach itself and some likely from touching spinach or from a person who had spinach contact.

    But, in fact, there was a different e coli fingerprint in these five children. It could have been some *other* spinach, but they didn't all consume spinach. The food that linked them was the raw milk. Whether something obscure and not on the questionnaire that should be on the questionnaire actually linked them, then you are right, we may never know the actual cause. I know a lot of people get upset that raw milk is on the questionnaire in the first place but it can have e. coli. It should be on the list. If the new Monsanto GM beets become implicated in outbreaks, they will make the questionnaire too.

    I have been working to understand e. coli testing and plan to write about it when I do. I've gotten far enough in to realize that we really can't assume that testing procedures are going to guarantee a pathogen-free product. (Here I mean contamination from the cow and not from transport after bottling.) What we need to do then is inform ourselves of the risks and make our decisions accordingly. I'm still drinking raw milk, just for the record.

    Thanks for *your* work and take care.

    Amanda

  8. Jessica says:

    Amanda, "the cows at Organic Pastures get some grain". Just out of curiosity, what is your source for this claim? I have looked at most of their site, and have not found any indication at all that the cows are fed grain. Based on my findings, the cows only eat organic grass, alfalfa, ryegrass, fescue and some other feeds. Am I missing something? I'd like to know cause' I'm thinking about buying some milk from them. Thanks.

  9. Amanda Rose says:

    Jessica,
    The "100% pasture grazed" on the label apparently means that the cows are on pasture all the time, not that they only consume pasture grass. Materials at the dairy stated that cows get grain and the dairy's FAQ page alludes to it (in the pathogens section):
    In summary, it has been theorized that the combination of grass feeding, no antibiotics used, no hormones, and low levels of grain used in diet cause a change in the cows immune system and rumen. This change in physiology directly inhibits pathogen development in the milk (actually a transfer from environmental contamination that does not seem to occur; there are no bad bugs in the manure that transfer into the milk and the clean raw milk is highly pathogen resistant).
    I am not aware of any dairy in California that does not give grain to the cows. My bigger concern with OPDC has been over their history of outsourcing from confinement dairies.
    Amanda