Raw milk is a touchy subject in the food safety community, and nowhere more so than in California – the home state of Organic Pastures.

Yesterday, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) and the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) announced that the State had imposed a recall and quarantine on raw milk products from Organic Pastures (Fresno County, CA). The action resulted from reports of five E. coli O157:H7 illnesses among children in the state.

The five children live in four California counties: San Diego, Contra Costa, King and Sacramento. They became ill during the months of August through October. Three of the children developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) and were hospitalized. The San Diego area victim is a five-year old boy, who became ill in late August. He was not hospitalized. All five children were infected with a single genetic strain of E. coli O157:H7.

CDPH says that the children had only a single food exposure in common –  raw milk produced by Organic Pastures. According to Dr. Debra Gilliss, Chief of the CDPH Disease Investigations Section, all five children were reported by their parents to have consumed raw whole milk.

I’m told by Steve Lyle, Director of Public Affairs for CDFA, that there were no investigative product samples collected and tested by the state. The decision to recall and quarantine Organic Pastures products was based on epidemiological evidence. This, presumably, was because the milk consumed by the five children was long gone by the time the outbreak was identified.

Organic Pastures appealed the recall and quarantine order, according to a report carried today in The Sacramento Bee, on the grounds that the outbreak cluster happened two to three months ago and that the microbe was not found in the dairy’s milk. CDFA heard the appeal, but reaffirmed their order.

Samples will be taken and analyzed as part of the state’s inspection of Organic Pasture’s facility and operations. Lyle didn’t know how long it would take for the dairy to be permitted to resume distribution of its quarantined products. That will depend, according to Mr. Lyle, “…on completion of any needed corrections to sanitary conditions of equipment, good manufacturing practices, and outcome of laboratory tests demonstrating food contact surfaces are properly cleaned and products meet applicable microbial standards.”

This is the second E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that has been linked to raw milk produced and distributed by Organic Pastures. A similar situation arose in 2006, when six children developed E. coli O157:H7 infections after they consumed Organic Pastures raw milk or raw colostrum. The follow-up inspection carried out by the state recovered E. coli O157:H7 – not the outbreak strain – from five fecal samples taken from cows at the dairy. The E. coli O157:H7 strains found in 2006 are genetically different from the strain that has been recovered from the five victims of the current outbreak, according to Dr. Gilliss of CDPH.

California health officials offer the following information and advice to California residents who purchase and consume Organic Pastures raw milk products:

Symptoms of E. coli O157:H7 infection may include abdominal cramps and diarrhea which is often bloody. Most infected people recover within a week; however, some may develop complications that require hospitalization. Young children and the elderly are at highest risk for a potentially life-threatening complication known as hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which includes kidney failure. People who develop symptoms of E. coli O157:H7 infection after consuming unpasteurized milk or milk products should consult their health care provider. Physicians who have patients suspected of having HUS or E. coli O157:H7 infections should report them to the local health department.