California's new year regulations, fixing upper limits for bacterial presence in raw milk might have drawn some critcism.
But a Massachusetts dairy firm has agreed to halt milk production after it was linked to a bacterial illness that killed two elderly men and made two other people.
The state health officials warned consumers not to drink milk produced by the whittier Farms, saying it was the likely source of a bacterial illness that killed two men and sickened two others.
Whittier Farms suspended operations and distribution, said Dr. Alfred DeMaria, the state director of communicable disease control. Most of its customers live in Worcester County.
The Department of Public Health issued the warning Thursday after identifying four cases of listeriosis. Two of the victims, a 78-year-old man and a 75-year-old man, died in June and October.
Investigators have not identified the exact source of the contamination in the production process, DeMaria said. But milk samples gathered last week at one of the dairy's two retail stores tested positive for listeria.
Testing showed that the bacteria causing the infections in the four victims likely came from the same source.
Listeriosis is a kind of food poisoning that can be dangerous to the elderly, newborns, pregnant women and people with chronic medical conditions. Symptoms include fever, headache, stiffness, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea.
A spokesman for the state public health agency, Tom Lyons, said Thursday night that when the Whittier Farms resumes operations, officials would test its for listeria.
But there are no immediate plans to begin testing for the germ statewide, he said. Milk is sampled monthly at all dairies in the state, with more exacting reviews carried out four times a year.
"We'll certainly take a look at [broader testing for listeria], but no state in the country does this type of testing," Lyons said. "That's because this type of bacteria is not usually found to occur in pasteurized milk products."
However, the Boston Globe newspaper reports, that a series of routine state inspections this fall found no health violations at the Whittier's.
But then those reviews did not look specifically for evidence of listeria, the bacterium in question now. Instead, following guidelines established by federal health regulators, the laboratory at the state Department of Public Health tested milk from Whittier Farms for its overall bacteria count, finding only one sample with a marginally elevated level of germs. A dairy is cited only if there is a second elevated test on the same product. The inspection reports, including an exhaustive quarterly review completed just three weeks ago, only served to deepen the mystery around the dairy and the listeriosis cases, an illness heralded by flu-like symptoms that can progress into life-threatening neurological conditions.
Dr. Alfred DeMaria said he knew of only two other situations in the United States in the past two decades when pasteurized milk was identified as the source of a cluster of listeriosis cases.
"We always ask about hot dogs and soft cheese and cold cuts - those are the most implicated foods," said DeMaria.
Milk is suspected as the cause in this case because a bottle of listeria-contaminated, coffee-flavored milk was found in the refrigerator of one victim and the genetic fingerprint of that strain matched the bacteria found in all four victims. Also, listeria was found in a milk sample taken last week at one of Whittier's stores.
Family-owned Whittier continued to decline requests for interviews yesterday, issuing a statement that it promised to cooperate with state investigators and adding that "we strive to produce the best product and therefore we are extremely concerned about the situation."
As word spread across Worcester County that Whittier had halted production, milk drinkers flooded a state hot line, corner stores discarded gallons of the drink, and delivery men lamented losing customers.
The state disease hot line received 50 to 100 calls from consumers and their physicians expressing concerns about potential exposure to listeria. Patients were told to see their doctors if they were ill, and physicians were told to send blood samples for testing at the state laboratory.