The California Department of Public Health has genetically matched E.coli 0157:H7 that sickened five children, ages one to five years old, with water and manure samples taken from a calf holding area at Organic Pastures Dairy Co.

The agency speculates that “contamination found in the calving area originated from maternal cows and subsequently passed to calves, either directly through feeding, indirectly through fecal-oral transmission, or by translocation through movement of personnel and equipment used on the farm.”

The CDPH revealed details of its analysis in a report letter to Mark McAfee, owner of OPDC (which he discussed in comments following my previous post). Among the details of the report letter:

* Out of “a significant number of samples” of manure, water, soil, and swabs of various contact surfaces, ten “from the calf area were positive for E.coli O157:H7 (1 swab, 3 soil, 1 water, and 5 fecal)…”

* Two of the samples–one manure and one water– “had a PFGE (pulse-field gel electrophoresis) pattern indistinguishable from the outbreak strain.”

* The CDPH doesn’t speculate about how the E.coli O157:H7 got into the milk from the calf area, except to say, “the fact that E.coli O157:H7 identifcal to the outbreak strain was recovered from OPDC environment supports the probability that the OPDC raw milk the case patients consumed was similarly contaminated leading to their illnesses.”

* The CDPH also “isolated shiga-toxin producing pathogens” from packaged OPDC colostrum collected at the dairy. “The pathogen is very rare and we were unable to serotype it at our laboratory. The isolate has been sent to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for further evaluation.” According to the CDC, E.coli O157 H:7 is the most common shiga toxin producing E.coli (STEC). Other such E.coli “are not nearly as well understood, partly because outbreaks due to them are rarely identified. As a whole, the non-O157 serogroup is less likely to cause severe illness than E. coli O157; however, some non-O157 STEC serogroups can cause the most severe manifestations of STEC illness.”

* The CDPH also said it found “sanitary deficiencies” in the OPDC milk bottling room, milk storage rooms, labeling room, kefir room, and common areas. These included chipping paint, mold-mildew, and rodent droppings.

In a letter of response, McAfee said OPDC has taken steps to isolate the calf area from the milk production and creamery operations. He added, “We now have a plan in place with employee training, segregation of personnel and dedication of equipment to reduce the risk or opportunity of the possible cross communication of bacteria from our calves to the rest of the operations.”

He also said the sanitation problems have been addressed via a reconstructed milk bottling room and upgrades to the milk storage rooms.

Controversy seems to be lurking in the supposed manner in which two of the children became ill from E.coli O157:H7 in OPDC milk. In a comment following my previous post, McAfee stated, “We do know that at least two of the most sickened children did not drink raw milk,….but drank OPDC after it had been ‘fermented and cultured with store bought Kefir cultures ‘ ” There is nothing in the CDPH report letter that details the circumstances of how the milk was consumed by the sickened children.

But in an email today to Stephen Beam, head of the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s dairy division, McAfee requested that publicity coming out of that agency explain his understanding about how the milk was used by a customer. “In all fairness, it is crucial that your department and CDPH both include in your press releases, that two of the hospitalized and most sickened children, did not drink raw milk at all. They instead drank a homemade brew of cultured raw milk with added cultures in their own containers and the end product contained millions of bacteria per ml. They also ate cultured vegetables that were soaked in raw whey collected from this cultured Kefir.

“That is an entirely different story….than two sickened kids drinking fresh raw milk…I would be very disappointed in the accuracy of the report if it did not include that the two most sickened kids drank a home cultured kefir and not our  fresh raw  milk.”

In the aftermath of the outbreaks over two months in late summer and early fall, OPDC was shut down for four weeks, and then, after it re-opened, prohibited from selling colostrum. It’s not clear if the colostrum prohibition is related to the finding of the rare shiga-producing pathogen in the colostrum.

I don’t think we’ve heard the end of this story quite yet. On the matter of fermenting the milk to make kefir or yogurt, lots of consumers do that. Is McAfee suggesting people shouldn’t do that, or that it should be done “at your own risk”? Just when you think you’ve heard the last of the issues surrounding raw milk safety, a new one rears its head.