Raw milk blamed for illness outbreak

Last updated 05:00 29/03/2014

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A Timaru raw milk supplier is being blamed for an outbreak of the bacteria campylobacter.

Seven cases have been confirmed in those who purchased milk from Timaru Village Milk, but South Canterbury Medical Officer of Health Dr Daniel Williams said that number could be just the "tip of the iceberg".

Village Milk shut its doors on Wednesday, awaiting more test results, and its franchisees have apologised.

Stu and Andrea Weir said correct procedure was not followed. New cows were introduced to the herd prematurely when test results showed contaminants were present. The affected batch of milk was sold over March 7 and 8.

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

The Weirs started selling raw milk from their Fairview Rd farm in mid-February to meet local demand.

Though they claim raw milk is a completely safe product when procedures are followed, the medical profession and Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) disagree.

"Drinking raw milk is risky for your health," Dr Williams said.

"It can contain disease-causing bacteria and other organisms which can lead to gastroenteritis and other illnesses, some of which can be life-threatening."

The young, elderly, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems were at greatest risk, he said.

Consumers can reduce the risk of getting sick from drinking raw milk by heating it up to 70C for one minute, or to 63C for 30 minutes.

Public Health Ministry for Primary Industries principal adviser Dr Craig Thornley said there was always a risk with raw milk, "even when stringent control measures are followed".

MPI works to identify the source of any contamination and with the producer to reduce the risk in the future.

Village Milk chief executive Mark Houston said the company had very high test standards and its procedures worked well.

It has six outlets nationwide.

The Timaru outbreak was the first to result in people getting sick through Village Milk products that he knew of.

New Zealand legislation allows producers to sell up to five litres of raw milk daily at the farm gate to buyers who purchase it for themselves or their families.

The Weirs service 100 customers a day, who buy up to 300 litres.

Ministry of Health data shows there were five disease outbreaks due to raw milk consumption between 2007 and 2009, as against 16 in 2010 to 2012.

The amount of raw milk sold in New Zealand is unknown, but according to MPI, research suggests between 1 and 3 per cent of the population consume it.

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DRINKERS UNFAZED

Regular raw milk consumers have not been put off drinking the product, despite the campylobacter outbreak in Timaru linked to raw milk.

Timaru company director Carol Gallagher said she started drinking raw milk sourced from Temuka 18 months ago and switched suppliers to Timaru Village Milk when it opened last month.

She was prompted to drink raw milk after reading that processed milk may contribute to clogged arteries.

She said it was like going back to her childhood when she drank straight from the cow's teat.

Unconcerned by the contamination, Shirley Ladbrook said she would continue to buy raw milk as she felt it was better than pasteurised milk, which was heated to kill bugs.

"I was brought up on it [raw milk] and never got sick," Ms Ladbrook said.

At $2.50 a litre for the raw milk, teacher aide Soosie Lucas usually buys four litres a week.

"It's amazing when you hear the benefits of it," Ms Lucas said.

Improvements for Parkinsons, Alzheimer's, eczema and asthma sufferers were just some of the anecdotal stories.

"People would not buy it if it wasn't working," Ms Lucas said.

Chrissy Potter, a clerical worker, planned to buy her first raw milk yesterday and was disappointed to find the Timaru Village Milk outlet shut.

"I've never tried it before, but it's on my bucket list," she said.

Timaru Village Milk franchisees Stu and Andrea Weir hope to start selling raw milk again on Wednesday.

FACTBOX

Campylobacteriosis is an infection of the bowel caused by campylobacter bacteria which are found in the gut of birds, especially poultry, and animals such as cattle, sheep, cats and dogs. It is passed on in faeces.

Symptoms

Usually begins with diarrhoea which may be blood stained, and stomach pain which may be severe

May begin with influenza-like symptoms, ie, headache, muscle pains, fever, fatigue. May develop one to 10 days (usually three to five days) after contact with the bacteria

May rarely have more severe symptoms such as arthritis or acute paralysis.

May last for about 10 days. However, a person can be infectious from the start of the illness for two to seven weeks and relapses can occur.

Treatment For advice, testing and possible treatment you will need to visit your doctor.

Campylobacter infections will usually get better without antibiotics if you follow your doctor's instructions.

Drink plenty of fluids while the diarrhoea lasts to prevent dehydration. Go back to your doctor if your child is not drinking.

If you have a campylobacter infection the doctor is required to report this to the medical officer of health at the Public Health Service. They may contact you to find out how you picked up the bacteria.

Source: Community and Public Health.

For more information on the safety of raw milk go to: foodsmart.govt.nz

- The Timaru Herald

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