Raw Milk Debate Stirred Up By E Coli Illnesses In West MI

Posted at 8:22 PM, May 16, 2014
and last updated 2014-05-16 23:19:20-04

OTTAWA COUNTY, Mich. — (May 16, 2014) Two people have fallen ill due to an aggressive strain of E Coli.

The Ottawa County Health Department said they believe the bacteria came from drinking raw milk from a cow share program in Ottawa County.

Officials at health departments in Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon County say that a woman from Muskegon County and a six-year-old boy from Kent County became sick and both reported drinking raw milk.

Raw milk is illegal for stores to sell.

The only way that consumers can get it in Michigan is through a cow share or herd sharing program in which you own a cow, or a share in an animal, but pay a farmer to take care of the cow on their property and milk it.

Jesse Meerman, the owner of a similar organization, called Green Pastures in Coopersville, said, “A lot of people come to us.”

He said he has 250 customers that are part of a cow sharing program.

“What we have is a herd share program,” he said. “So, if people want to own their own cows, it’s the only way this works in Michigan, to get fresh, unprocessed milk. “They bring their cow to us. The reason they do that is when they drink pasteurized milk they get sick. It’s called lactose intolerance. There are other issues too.”

The customers draw or pick up fresh milk weekly and pay Meerman to house and care for the milk cow.

“The vast majority of bacteria are wonderful, beneficial in fact, and necessary, and the enzymes” said Meerman. ” Pasteurization takes both out of the milk.”

However, the Ottawa County Health Department said pasteurization is the only fail safe against the bacteria that can make you sick.

They are speaking out about what they consider the dangers of drinking raw milk without the heat treatment done through pasteurization.

“Raw milk is not pasteurized is not heat pasteurized or heat treated and the problem is that it can have bacteria in it, it can make you sick ,” said Adeline Hambley, Environmental Health Division Manager.

Hambley said the strain of E Coli causing the illness in Kent County is the same notorious strain that killed a number of children in the 1990’s.

“This 0157 strain, I think people most related it to the Jack in the Box outbreak in California.  Six-hundred people were sick and four children died in that. It’s a very serious illness that this can cause,” said Hambley.

As for which “herd share” farm the milk may have come from, the Ottawa County Health Department said it can’t confirm since they haven’t done the exact tests to determine that for certain.

Hambley said DNA tests that would be needed to confirm that the strain came from a particular farm have not been completed.

Meanwhile, on the Green Pasture herd share agreement, it specifically spells out that there are risks, it states:

Buyer is aware of the risks associated with the consumption of fresh unprocessed milk.  Buyer agrees that he/she is personally assuming the liability for the consumption of fresh unprocessed milk and will educate Buyer’s family members who may also consume the milk on a regular basis.  This relieves GREEN PASTURES of this responsibility.” 

Meerman said his customers still believe they are making the right choice.

“People who come to us are very confident that they want unprocessed milk,” he said. “They are eating a lot of other foods that are considered adventurous. But, if you’re worried about getting sick, probably salad is the most dangerous thing you can eat.”

The joint statement from the Ottawa, Kent and Muskegon County Health Department is below:

Two cases of E. coli 0157:H7 in West Michigan have been traced back to consumption of raw milk products from an Ottawa County cow share program. In March, a 31 year old Muskegon County woman became ill after drinking raw milk, and in April, a 6 year old child from Kent County became ill after possible consumption of the raw milk product.

Organisms that make people sick are found in the intestines of animals. Contamination of milk occurs when fecal matter is present on the udder of an animal or in the equipment used to process the milk. Enough bacteria to cause illness can be present and not be visibly dirty upon inspection. Pasteurizing is the process of heating the milk to high temperatures to kill the harmful bacteria that make you sick. Raw or unpasteurized milk (sometimes called fresh milk or fresh unprocessed milk) is milk that comes directly from a cow, goat, sheep or other animal’s udder and is not heat treated (pasteurized) to kill bacteria. Raw milk carries a much higher risk of causing serious illness than pasteurized milk, and you cannot see or smell the germs in raw milk that make you sick.

Some believe drinking raw milk products is more nutritious and provides the body with “good bacteria”. The pasteurizing process does not significantly change the nutritional value of milk, and due to the risk of serious illness, there are far safer sources of good bacteria than raw milk. Pasteurized probiotic yogurts, kefir, and other products are a great source of probiotics.

The CDC reports that unpasteurized milk is 150 times more likely to cause foodborne illness, and results in 13 times more hospitalizations than illnesses involving pasteurized dairy products. Due to poorly developed immune systems, infants and children are at greater risk for becoming sick and are more likely to suffer from long term damage from diseases linked to drinking raw milk.

Due to the health risk of consuming raw milk, it is not legal to sell raw milk or raw milk products in the State of Michigan. Because of this, raw milk is obtained through herd share programs. In a herd share program, consumers purchase a share of a cow and, as the owner of the cow, are provided raw milk from the farmer. These herd share dairy programs are not licensed or inspected by state or local agencies.

If you or someone you know has become ill in the days following consumption of a raw milk product, seek medical attention. Symptoms of illness include vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain along with fever, headache, and body ache. Pregnant women, infants, small children, the elderly, and people with chronic illnesses should never consume raw milk products.
For more information on the pasteurization process: