Washington State Department of Agriculture News Release: Dec. 2, 2009

Three recent E. coli infections in Washington have been linked to drinking raw, unpasteurized milk. As a result, the Washington state departments of Health and Agriculture are reminding consumers of the potential health hazards of these products.

The patients all report drinking raw milk produced by the Dungeness Valley Creamery in Sequim. No E. coli has been found in samples from the dairy’s current batch of milk, but during an investigation at the dairy, WSDA found the same bacteria that caused one of the illnesses.

While most strains of the bacteria Escherichia coli (abbreviated as E. coli) are harmless, others, including E. coli O157, produce a toxin. Toxin-producing E. coli infections may cause severe diarrhea, stomach cramps and bloody stool. Symptoms generally appear three to four days after exposure, but can take as long as nine days to appear. Anyone experiencing these symptoms should contact a health care provider.

Each year, the E. coli strain found in this investigation causes about 100,000 illnesses, 3,000 hospitalizations and 90 deaths in the United States.  The infection sometimes causes hemolytic uremic syndrome, a serious disease in which red blood cells are destroyed and the kidneys fail.  Infants, children, pregnant women, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems are especially at risk.

Raw milk is riskier than pasteurized milk because it hasn’t been heated to kill harmful bacteria. Pasteurization kills the bacteria in raw milk that can cause illness. Besides E. coli, raw milk can also contain other potentially serious or life-threatening bacteria that have caused illness outbreaks in the past. These include Salmonella, Campylobacter and Listeria.

Retail raw milk is legal to sell and buy in Washington, but there are serious potential health risks. Consumers should read the warning label on the retail raw milk container carefully and ask their retailer to verify the milk was produced and processed by a WSDA-licensed operation.