By: James Peacock

Raw milk made yet another appearance in news feeds this past week when it was connected to an outbreak of Campylobacter poisoning. Although we do not have all of the details yet, here is what we know: on December 2, 2016, the Ohio Department of Agriculture released an announcement slated for immediate release that stated that there had been several instances of Campylobacter poisoning reported to health officials. Most of these illnesses appear to be contained within Franklin County, which is in central Ohio and home to the state capital, Columbus. Testing has been done both on ill individuals and potential sources of the outbreak. Soon, results from the testing revealed that the outbreak was caused by raw, unpasteurized, milk.

This milk was later learned to have been provided by Sweet Grass Dairy, which is a small farm located in Fredericktown, Ohio. The farm produces a variety of milk-related products, as well as products made from pigs, turkeys, and chickens, but many of them are not available to the public. According to the dairy’s Facebook page, “[These products are] only available by coming to the farm directly and becoming a herdshare owner.” This is because the sale of unpasteurized milk is, in fact, illegal in the state of Ohio, as well as in several other states in the United States. This quote was part of a larger response that the farm made to the reports of contaminated products. Included in the announcement, which was made on December 5, three days after the original Ohio Department of Agriculture was a photo of the farm’s recent pathogen test results. There were no pathogens, Campylobacter included, found in Sweet Grass Dairy products at that time. Unfortunately, we are lacking many pieces of information relating to this outbreak, including the number of people sickened, the severity of the illnesses, and the age range of the patients.

This is not the first time that Campylobacter and raw milk have caused a foodborne illness outbreak. Back in September, the Pueblo City-County Health Department, working alongside the El Paso County Public Health Department, in Colorado reported that there was an outbreak of Campylobacter linked to raw milk and products made from raw milk. There were eventually at least 20 cases associated with that outbreak, which lasted from late September into mid-October. The farm that was linked to that outbreak, Larga Vista Ranch, was set up similarly to Sweet Grass Dairy, in that various people were able to obtain raw milk through a cow share operation.

The process of investigating an outbreak usually occurs after there is a spike in illnesses. Health officials have studied for years the average rate that specific pathogens cause illness, and are able to track when these background infections suddenly change. When a random spike in illnesses is detected, health officials can then investigate the outbreak, usually by taking samples and by conducting interviews. There is sometimes a correlation between interview answers, which can help investigators locate a source. Although interviews can help locate potential sources, the best way for health officials to learn more about an outbreak is through the testing of samples. When medical providers retrieve samples from ill people or from the environment, the samples undergo testing to learn more about them. This type of testing reveals is the bacteria’s DNA fingerprint. This fingerprint, a solution of the process of pulsed field gel electrophoresis, is unique to the bacteria and strain involved in the outbreak. The DNA fingerprint is then uploaded to the PulseNet system. The PulseNet system is a database of DNA fingerprints maintained by the CDC. If a saved sample matches another sample, there may be a connection between the two. When multiple samples match through the PulseNet system, it is another clue to investigators about the origin and size of the outbreak.

Raw milk continues to be a pressing issue in the United States. With multiple outbreaks of foodborne illnesses occurring each year at the hands of unpasteurized milk, the CDC and other health officials have to constantly remind people not to drink raw milk or consume products made with raw milk. It is only through the process of pasteurization that milk can have all of its potential pathogens destroyed. This process was developed by Louis Pasteur in the 1800s and represented one of the first forays into understanding how illnesses spread. The process involves heating milk, or other liquids, to the point that all potential pathogens can no longer exist in that environment. Unpasteurized milk has the propensity to contain bacteria, including E. coli, Salmonella, and Campylobacter, among others.

Campylobacter bacteria can cause the infection Campylobacteriosis in humans when they are exposed to the bacteria. Campylobacter remains one of the most common causes of diarrheal illness in the United States, where the CDC estimates that over 1.3 million Campylobacter infections take place each year. This means that there are approximately 14 people diagnosed with Campylobacter infections per every 100,000 persons in the population. There are about 76 people that die each year because of Campylobacter infections. Campylobacter infections are mostly considered to be sporadic and random, making outbreaks much less likely. Campylobacter infections grow more common in the summer, although the reason for this is unknown. This bacteria has a tendency to infect infants and young adults rather than other age groups. Campylobacter infections spread easily, and require very few of the bacteria to actually be involved in the exposure. Thankfully, these bacteria tend to be fragile, and even the presence of oxygen can be enough to destroy Campylobacter bacteria.

When someone gets infected with Campylobacter bacteria, they can expect symptoms to appear between 2 and 5 days after the initial exposure. Typically, Campylobacter infections come with symptoms including abdominal cramping, abdominal pain, fever, and diarrhea. In some cases, this diarrhea can be bloody. This illness will usually burn out within a week in those with healthy immune systems. Most treatment options for a Campylobacter infection include only rest and hydration. However, in those with certain risk factors, including children, the elderly, and those with suppressed immune systems, Campylobacter bacteria can enter the bloodstream and cause further issues. Although this is very rare, it can be potentially life threatening. If you or a loved one begins to show the symptoms of Campylobacter poisoning after consuming raw milk from Sweet Grass Dairy, contact a medical professional.