Food safety lawyer Bill Marler, who was the first to publicly question whether raw milk made children sick in Kentucky outbreak.It’s been more than two weeks since the media began reporting on five Kentucky children hospitalized with E.coli O157:H7. The reporting was straightforward, with no mention of the possibility that raw milk might be the cause of the illnesses. 


Since those initial reports, not a lot has clarified about the case—in fact, the mystery appears to have deepened. What I have been able to determine is the following:


—At least three of the children appear to have become very ill with hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a complication of E.coli O157 infections  that occurs in about 15% of cases, and more frequently in children; 

—All five of the hospitalized children apparently drank raw milk from a single dairy; 

—While it would seem as if raw milk is a logical culprit, state public health officials have held back from blaming raw milk, to the extent they haven’t ordered the farm in question to discontinue distributing milk. The Kentucky Public Health Department is expected to announce the status of its ongoing investigation early this week, and point out that the sickened children consumed raw milk.


I have been monitoring the situation for the last two weeks, holding off on reporting about it in hopes this difficult unfolding human drama would come together both happily (with the children all recovered) and in a way I could write coherently about, with a sense of completion. Instead, the mystery seems to have deepened as public health officials have apparently been unable to make a connection between the pathogens in the sick kids and the raw dairy farm, or any other source. It is understood that all tests of the dairy, its animals, and milk samples have come back negative. 

I decided to write about the situation before it clarified because food safety lawyer Bill Marler made the first public connection in the case to raw milk on one of his thirty-plus blogs and web sites on food safety. While the actual article posted on the “E.coli Blog” seems to be the same as what was posted two weeks ago in the initial flurry of reports about the five illnesses, this revised post carries a new heading: “Is Raw Milk Link in Kentucky E.coli Outbreak?” The actual post makes no mention of raw milk, so it isn’t clear whether Marler made the connection because he’s had an inquiry from a parent of one of the sick Kentucky children or because he had some inside information from the Kentucky Department of Public Health. 

In addition, mothers of at least two of the sick children have been posting about their situations on Facebook, leading to comments from individuals active in opposing and favoring raw milk. 


I made contact with a spokesperson from the Kentucky Department of Public Health on Friday, but that individual said she was unable to provide answers to my questions by late Friday evening. As I indicated above, the department is expected to issue a statement on the cases early next week.


Because this situation is still in flux, I have respected requests from food club organizers and others involved in providing information that they not be identified by name. The families of the five children obtained their milk via the Heartland Whole Life Buying Club of Elizabethtown, which uses MRM Dairy of Hodgenville, KY. (This food club is different than the one that in 2011 defied Kentucky public health officials who served it with a quarantine order, and had the quarantine lifted; the Heartland group does obtain its milk from the same dairy.)


Even though the dairy hasn’t been shut down, the food club, upon learning of the illnesses in early September, immediately advised its members to dispose of milk from the dairy. For two weeks, it refrained from ordering milk. In recent days, it has resumed milk distribution at the request of members, who appear to be satisfied the milk is safe, based on extensive testing by the owner of both the dairy and its milk.  


There has apparently been good cooperation between the Kentucky Department of Public Health and the dairy in question. One food club that buys from the same dairy but didn’t have any illnesses, just reported to its members “The KY HD, rather than pressing the dairy to cease operations, has been congenial and helpful overall.” 


Ironically, the Heartland Whole Life Buying Club, which has been in operation for seven years and has about 500 members, just two weeks before the illnesses started being reported, had worked with the Kentucky Department of Public Health to obtain a retail license for its first food store. “They have been helpful, kind, and gracious,” one of the managers of the food club said about the public health inspectors. “It was very different from what I had heard. For years I have been on edge that the food police were going to come after us.” The retail operation sells a variety of foods, including local meats, baked goods, seeds, and oils—but it wasn’t allowed to distribute raw milk at the facility. (Raw milk dairies in Kentucky sell only via herdshares directly to food clubs and such.)


Apparently, tests on the hospitalized children haven’t been clear cut. There have been unconfirmed reports that pathogen samples from the hospitalized children showed at least two genetic patterns.And the mother of at least one child with HUS reported on Facebook that investigators were unable to find any E.coli O157:H7 in her son’s stools.  


With no pathogens coming from the dairy, public health officials have been unable to close any loops and come to hard conclusions about the cause of the illnesses. Thus, they are understood to be exploring any other possible commonalities in what the five sickened children might have consumed. 


At least one mother is convinced raw milk was the culprit in her son’s illness and hospitalization from HUS. In a Facebook post, she said, “It is true that we drank it for years with no problem. But that’s just it. You can drink uncontaminated milk for nine years with no problem. And then on year nine, day one – you get one jar of contaminated milk and one or two kiddos in your house can’t handle it. It WAS the raw milk. You won’t hear that from the local food clubs (or maybe even the local news sources)….Doesn’t matter if the food club folks wanna say it wasn’t the milk because all the testing has come back negative.” 


Based on what I have heard about this case, it appears the Kentucky Department of Public Health has tried hard to be careful and fair in its investigation, and avoided the temptation to point fingers before the investigation is completed. 


And based on discussions with several food club organizers, it appears that at least four of the five sickened children are improving. The youngest, an 18-month-old, was apparently most seriously sickened, and is still receiving kidney dialysis. One family has two children who became sick, a three-year-old and a five-year-old. The oldest appears to have been an eight-year-old boy, though I was unable to find information about the fifth child. Of the four children the food club knows about, all apparently received dialysis and blood transfusions, and two are still in the hospital. 


In addition, at least three other children became sick early in September, and recovered quickly with the aid of healing herbs, food club officials told me. 


Not surprisingly, the experience has shaken the Heartland food club badly. “We are all very emotional,” one organizer told me. Its organizers have tried hard to provide comfort to the parents of the sick children. “I think our actions have been exemplary,” another organizer who has been in frequent touch with several of the parents of sick children told me. 


One organizer reported that she considered giving up raw milk entirely after learning about the hospitalized children. “I went to the Kroger and stood in front of the dairy cooler, and I just couldn’t buy the processed milk. I know what happens to produce that milk, and I just couldn’t do it.” She says she is back to serving raw milk to her family. 


Organizers, as well as the dairy owner, have agonized about what specifically might have caused the outbreak. One of the organizers, who has training in food handling, wondered if the re-usable glass jars, which members wash themselves, might have been the culprit. Or the coolers, which often get stepped on by  food club members. Or the ice water that was used to keep the milk cold. Or possibly strawberries that several families had consumed. 


Already, the dairy owner has switched from using coolers to a refrigerated truck, and is in the process of switching to using sealed plastic jugs for bottling; he says this was in planning even before the outbreak. The dairy is in the process of setting up its own testing lab. 


I decided only reluctantly to report the situation, because it appears as if it could be heading down an unfortunate path of emotional recriminations that are seeping into the public realm. The post from the mom I quoted earlier in this post elicited emotional responses from others—for example, on one side, about raw milk being a highly risky food, and on the other side, how the mother was “slandering” the dairy by accusing it of producing tainted milk, without conclusive evidence. 


Of course, the pattern is familiar. Once illnesses are potentially associated with raw milk, the refrain invariably starts up from opponents that raw milk is inherently unsafe and that food club and herdshare organizers are insensitive to the needs of parents of sickened children. 


The Heartland organizers say they have been trying from the beginning to prevent an antagonistic situation from taking hold. There is talk of a fund-raising dinner being organized for one family with a sick child, without health insurance. As for the mother who complained on Facebook that the food club is denying that raw milk was the culprit, an organizer told me: “It isn’t us saying that the tests came back negative. It’s the Health Department telling us that the tests came back negative.” 

This same organizer understands the Facebook mom’s upset. “She is hurting. She is a mom who almost lost her child. I don’t fault her. She was one of our strongest supporters. But we cannot say it was the milk. She says she does not believe the tests.” 

(Copyright 2014, The Complete Patient, all rights reserved)