Illness halts raw milk program
Published: August 16, 2008
By Nicholas Grube
Triplicate staff writer
Alexandre Family EcoDairy Farms ended its raw milk program after several people who consumed the product got sick, including one Crescent City woman who remains in intensive care and is partially paralyzed.
The Del Norte County Department of Public Health suspects at least 15 people who ingested raw milk contracted Campylobacter, a common bacteria found in domesticated animals that can cause gastrointestinal illness.
Raw milk essentially comes straight from the udder and has become popular among health-conscious consumers. It is unpasteurized, and advocates say it contains beneficial microbes that help in digestion and provide increased nutrition.
Three cases of Campylobacter infections have been documented by Del Norte County health officials since late June, and the other 12 are awaiting confirmation.
The Crescent City woman was the only person who became severely ill.
The outbreak occurred around May 10 to June 5, and officials say it is no longer a risk to the public because the source of the raw milk believed to have caused the infections—Alexandre EcoDairy north of Fort Dick—voluntarily stopped the program.
"As far as we know the outbreak of Campylobacter has been controlled and the source of raw milk has been shut down," said county Public Health Officer Thomas Martinelli.
Hundreds of local users
About 115 people were signed up for Alexandre EcoDairy's raw milk program. Martinelli said the number of people who actually consumed the product could be 300-500 since it was distributed to family members.
"It depends on how many people are in the family," he said. "It would be some multiple of 115."
Alexandre EcoDairy stopped the program June 15 after learning one of its customers had become seriously ill and was in a Medford, Ore., hospital. The family-owned organic farm contacted each of its raw milk customers to tell them the news.
"We immediately stopped when somebody got sick," owner Blake Alexandre said. "We were absolutely concerned that there could have been a connection."
The woman who became sick initially showed symptoms common with a Campylobacter infection, Martinelli said. This included episodes of abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting.
She later developed a form of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disorder that makes a person's immune system attack the peripheral nervous system and can result in paralysis.
The syndrome is rare, but when it does occur it often is associated with a Campylobacter infection, medical studies have found.
Sources identified the sick woman as Mari Tardiff of Crescent City. Her husband, veterinarian Peter Tardiff, confirmed her identity Friday but declined to comment further. She is still hospitalized in a Medford, Ore., intensive care unit.
Hospital notifies county
The Del Norte County Health Department officially learned of Mari Tardiff's illness in late June when medical staff in Medford contacted Martinelli with a diagnosis.
"That's what alerted us to looking at the milk share program; we knew she had consumed raw milk," Martinelli said. "It alerted us that there could be something else going on in this community."
Upon further investigation, Martinelli said he found 14 other people who might have suffered Campylobacter infections from raw milk, and that it all appeared to come from the same source.
No public health notice was issued because Alexandre EcoDairy had already voluntarily shut down its raw milk program, he said.
"They did that on their own before we started investigating the possible correlation between raw milk and the outbreak," Martinelli said. "There was no threat any longer to public safety."
A number of Alexandre EcoDairy's raw milk customers still support the program, many of them standing by the product's nutritional and, in some cases, curative properties.
Christine Mitchell of Crescent City, 42, drank Alexandre's raw milk for almost two years. Before she started the program, she said her joints ached, especially in her knees.
"All my joints were hurting really bad," Mitchell said. "I had trouble walking up stairs."
When she began drinking raw milk from Alexandre EcoDairy, she didn't really know if it would help with her joint pain.
"I started drinking it and about four months later all of my joint pain was gone," Mitchell said. "That was a huge change in my life."