SEQUIM — State Department of Agriculture laboratory tests found no traces of E. coli in products from Dungeness Valley Creamery, a raw milk dairy farm north of Sequim, after Department of Health officials linked two cases of E. coli with consumption of the dairy’s products.
Last Friday, the state’s Department of Health issued a press release that said: “Lab results recently confirmed a child under 5-years-old from Island County and (a) resident in their 70s of Clallam County became ill with an E. coli infection after drinking Dungeness Valley Creamery raw milk.”
However, representatives of the state’s Department of Agriculture said that results the following day showed E. coli was not found in random product samples from the farm. Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria normally live in the intestines of healthy people and animals.
Chris McGann, spokesman for the state’s Department of Agriculture who regulates raw milk producers, said the agency tested 21 samples of raw milk, with 15 randomly selected from retail locations and six directly from the dairy, and all were deemed “not found” to have E. coli.
Researchers couldn’t rule out one of the initial 21 samples by Friday night, McGann said, but it was tested again and was determined not to have E. coli the next day.
Liz Coleman, communication lead for environmental public health, said investigators found unique strands of E. coli in the consumers and the common link was they both drank raw milk roughly around the same time from the creamery.
State health officials said the milk batch that allegedly held E. coli and infected the two patients was unavailable for testing.
Since infected with E. coli, both patients — later revealed to be a 2-year-old child and a 72-year-old woman — recovered, Coleman said.
Ryan McCarthey, Dungeness Valley Creamery co-owner, said he was told by the Department of Agriculture on Aug. 30 that milk samples would be tested in the next week to investigate the E. coli cases.
Along with those tests, he said the dairy’s monthly random sampling Aug. 14 found no E. coli. Those products would have been bottled in the same time frame.
During the investigation, McCarthey said the Department of Agriculture allowed the dairy to continue distribution and sales.
McCarthey said he learned of the press release from a retailer Friday afternoon, and he shared information about the investigation and its results on the dairy’s social media accounts over the weekend. The dairy received an “overwhelming amount of support from the community,” he said.
“They haven’t found any contamination, so I don’t have any reasons to believe our product is contaminated,” McCarthey said. “I guess it’s going to be one of those unsolved mysteries.”
McCarthey said he disagrees with the Department of Health’s wording that the infection came from the creamery.
“We want to know if there was a pathogen,” he said. “We definitely want to do our best to control and mitigate any problem with product.”
McCarthey said the dairy has revisited cleaning protocols “to be as safe as possible,” and his staff already began preparations and cleaning for the Clallam County Farm Tour on Sept. 29.
The dairy, which celebrated its 12th anniversary in June, has seen some E. coli scares before.
McCarthey said in 2013, E. coli was found in some raw milk cream that went out to 19 people but was quickly recalled before it was eaten.
“Because of that we changed the process of how we do cream,” he said. “We did have to shut down for a week as we waited for clearing samples and then we were re-certified and back to operating.”
The following year, the dairy issued a brief recall for its products for what McCarthey said was for “an abundance of caution” after a sample was deemed inconclusive for E. coli. Three days later results showed E. coli was “not found” and products returned to store shelves.
“We’re growing up from a family dairy, and as we grow we’re going to keep progressing with cleanliness,” McCarthey said. “This is an opportunity to dig in a little deeper and be even cleaner.”
Earlier this year, dairy staff installed a DTX Separator from Daritech Inc. of Lynden, which schedules and flushes cow stalls six times a day rather than twice a day.
McCarthey said the system allows the dairy’s 70 cows more hours outside and a cleaner environment.
Despite not finding any E. coli in these samples, Coleman said the Department of Health considers raw milk to be “a risky product.”
“We see this as a teaching moment more than anything,” she said. “Regardless of what the results were from the Department of Agriculture, we feel it’s important to let people know in case more folks are out there were sick.”
The Department of Health’s press release cautions infants, younger children, senior citizens, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems from consuming raw milk.
On state-mandated labels, dairy staff place verbiage on each product that they are not pasteurized and may contain harmful bacteria.
Symptoms of E. coli infections can include severe diarrhea, stomach cramps and/or bloody stool that can begin to appear as early as three days or as late as nine days after exposure.
Clallam County Health Officer Dr. Allison Berry Unthank said the agency has sent out notices to area health care providers about the cases and potential symptoms for E. coli infection.
She said during the investigation, the dairy’s owner were very cooperative.
The Dungeness Valley Creamery, 1915 Towne Road, sells its products through 50 retail locations and up to 25 drop-off locations, and its Jersey cows produce about 2,100 gallons of milk per week, McCarthey said.
Among the locations are Country Aire in Port Angeles, Port Townsend Food Co-op, Sequim Prairie Grange and Sunny Farms Farm Store.
For more information on the dairy, call 683-0716 or visit www.facebook.com/ dungenessvalleycreamery.
For more information from the Department of Health on raw milk and its potential hazards, visit www.doh.wa.gov/YouandYourFamily/ FoodSafety/RawMilk.
Matthew Nash is a reporter with the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which is composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. Reach him at [email protected].