January 22, 2018

WI Raw Milk Outbreak Raises Ethical, Legal Questions

A raw milk outbreak that sickened 38 people in Durand, Wisconsin, is raising ethical and legal questions. The milk was served at a potluck for the football team on September 18. Many of those sickened were high school students. The parent who supplied the milk told no one that it had not pasteurized.

MilkTwo days after the dinner, reports of illnesses started rolling in. Like other bacteria that causes food poisoning, Campylobacter produces symptoms including diarrhea that can be bloody, vomiting, abdominal cramping and fever. Eight people were hospitalized.

So many of the football players were so sick for so long that the school had to forfeit two football games. The outbreak also triggered a massive cleaning effort at the school and, before the source of illness was determined, prompted many students to stay home from class to avoid becoming ill.

Lab tests eventually confirmed that 26 people had Campylobacter infections. Eight other cases were non-confirmed. And at least one player developed an E.coli infection that caused him to lose 11 pounds.

Two months after the dinner, families are grappling with huge medical bills, some students are still experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms and others worry about the long-term complications they face. Campylobacter infections can trigger reactive arthritis which causes painful swelling of the joints and Guillain-Barré Syndrome which causes weakness and paralysis that can last weeks, months or years.

Teenagers and younger children are especially vulnerable to food poisoning because their immune systems are not fully developed. In addition to being more likely than the general population to develop food poisoning, children and teens are also more likely to develop serious infections. Because raw milk can harbor dangerous pathogens such as Campylobacter, E.coli and Listeria public health officials recommend that children only consume pasteurized milk.

The comment sections on news stories about this outbreak are filled with people wondering who would do that and why?  Who would choose to expose anyone to a high-risk food without telling them? Who would jeopardize the goals, health and lives of student athletes?

Although some Durand already know the answer to those questions, those outside the community do not. Health officials have not yet released the name of the farm, although they have established its link to the outbreak. DNA “fingerprinting” has matched Campylobacter bacteria found on the farm to the strain that sickened banquet attendees. The farm’s name could be revealed in the health department’s final repot on the outbreak, due out later this month.

Still to be resolved are legal questions surrounding the outbreak. For example, regardless of the nondisclosure about the lack of pasteurization was it even legal to serve the milk to a large group?  “In Wisconsin, it’s illegal to sell or distribute raw milk. It makes no difference if the seller/distributor tells consumers the milk is unpasteurized or not,” said Fred Pritzker, a national food safety attorney who publishes Food Poisoning Bulletin. Pritzker, who has represented many clients sickened by raw milk, debated raw milk advocates at the Harvard Food Law Society in 2012.

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