Raw milk contamination was down to human error

Human error is responsible for raw milk being contaminated with campylobacter that has resulted in the shutdown of a Village Milk outlet in Timaru, says Village Milk chief executive Mark Houston.

Seven people have been confirmed to have contracted campylobacter after drinking raw milk from the farm which has a Village Milk franchise.

In warning people of the risks of drinking raw milk, medical officer of health Daniel Williams described the confirmed cases as the "tip of the iceberg".

Timaru Village Milk announced the outbreak on its Facebook page on Wednesday and said it would stop selling milk until test results showed it was clear of the problem.

Village Milk, started by the Houston family in Takaka in December 2011, now has franchises in Oxford, Greymouth, Moutere, and Gordonton, Hamilton. The Timaru franchise started three weeks ago.

Mr Houston said the problem stemmed from new cows being introduced to the Timaru herd.

"The rules are, you test them and you don't put their milk into the dispenser until the results come back. If they are clear you're good to go.

"The farmer, Stu Weir, basically made a mistake and put the milk into the dispenser before the test results came back.

"It's not a failure of our systems, they were working perfectly. It's human error, they got it wrong and did not carry out the procedure."

Mr Weir acknowledged the mistake.

"We let people down by not carrying out procedures properly; it's a bit disappointing," he said.

Mr Houston said testing meant that on three other occasions Village Milk had stopped selling milk - twice in Hamilton this year when milk was not up to the right standard and there was coliform from the milking plant not washing well enough, and once in Oxford at the end of the year when campylobacter showed up. Nobody was sick and a UV water filtration system had improved the water supply, he said.

When Village Milk stopped selling milk it had good feedback from the public on its Facebook page. "They have said thank you for being careful and we're looking forward to when it is back," said Mr Houston. It was a personal choice whether people bought raw milk, he said.

"There's always a potential risk with sale of unprocessed food, it's up to people to make up their own mind."

While shutdowns seemed a bit odd, they were an integral part of the management of the milk, he said. "If they have a problem they have to sort it out."

The comprehensive testing regime included daily tests at the farm for somatic cell count, a measure of udder health, and weekly for aerobic plate count (APC) which measured bacteria in milk, as well as for coliform and E coli. At the end of each month tests for inhibitors such as penicillin and somatic cell counts were sent to Hamilton for analysis, and bimonthly for pathogens such as campylobacter, salmonella and listeria.

Mr Houston said the Weirs would not lose their franchise. "It's human error, people should not make mistakes but you should not be shot at dawn."

In Nelson, Oaklands Milk, which sells pasteurised milk direct from its Stoke farm and at two city outlets, is looking at selling raw milk from the farm.

Owner Julian Raine said: "We had been hoping to sell raw milk by now but we are taking a slow and measured approach to it. We have to get it right. The stakes are too high if you get it wrong."

There was certainly a demand for raw milk, he said. "There would not be a day pass when I am not asked for raw milk."

The Nelson Mail