State agencies have issued another warning about the health risks from raw milk in the wake of two reported cases of E. coli infections in people who drank raw milk from a Whatcom County dairy.
In a joint news release, the Washington departments of Health and Agriculture say both sick people, who had the potentially deadly form of E. coli O157:H7, reported drinking raw milk from Jackie's Jersey Milk, 5643 Aldrich Road.
But Bill Degroot, co-owner of Jackie's, says the state hasn't proven that his product caused the bacterial illnesses.
"They have not been able to find any E. coli in my milk," Degroot said. "That's troubling to me. ... They're saying it came from our milk. They can't prove it, but that's what they're saying."
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Kathryn MacDonald, an epidemiologist with the Health Department, acknowledged that the state was not able to prove a direct link between the two recent cases and the Whatcom County dairy. But an investigation found no other likely route of infection in the two patients, one in King County and one in Skagit County.
"At this point this is all we needed, based on the history of this place," MacDonald said.
MacDonald said E. coli contamination was found in Jackie's raw milk in February, and although that triggered a recall, six people who drank Jackie's raw milk later reported E. coli O157:H7 illness.
There is no recall or other action against Jackie's at this time, MacDonald said, but the Health Department wanted to take the opportunity to emphasize the risks of drinking raw milk, even when that milk comes from an inspected and licensed facility.
"We consider it a very high-risk product, even though it's legal, just like tobacco is legal," MacDonald said. "There is a risk. People choose to take it on if they consume the product."
In the press release, the state agencies report that toxin-producing E. coli causes about 100,000 illnesses, 3,000 hospitalizations and 90 deaths in the United States each year. The infection can cause hemolytic uremic syndrome. It destroys red blood cells and leads to kidney failure. Most at risk are infants, children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems.
Symptoms include severe diarrhea, stomach cramps and bloody stool. Symptoms can take up to nine days to appear but typically begin within three or four days. People with symptoms should get medical care.
Most milk undergoes heat treatment - pasteurization - to kill E. coli and other potentially harmful bacteria. While the state does inspect and license raw milk producers like Jackie's, the press release warns that raw milk still carries risk.
DeGroot said he and his wife have one part-time employee to help with their herd of 18 cows.