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Dairy operators question whether raw milk was source of E. coli

KELSO -- Owners of a small farm have been ordered to give health officials the names of people who received raw milk that investigators blame for an outbreak of E. coli-related illness in 11 people, including nine children.

Michael and Anita Puckett, operators of the Dee Creek Farm in Woodland, were given 24 hours to comply with the order issued Thursday by Cowlitz County Superior Court Judge James E. Warme.

Representing themselves in court, the Pucketts submitted a written statement saying they were seeking written authorization from shareholders who receive the milk for release of their names.

Warme advised the couple he was unconvinced that the shareholders were entitled to expect their names could remain secret under the circumstances, but added that under the court order the information would remain private to the extent that the law allows.

The Pucketts have not commented on the E. coli outbreak, but after the hearing their daughter, Summer Steenbarger, questioned whether unpasteurized milk was to blame, although she said workers at the dairy also had gotten sick.

The southwestern Washington farm, which ignored a demand in August to obtain a $55 state license to supply raw milk, is now about to apply for one, Steenbarger added.

A phone message left by The Associated Press seeking comment from the farm was not immediately returned Thursday, and a subsequent call rang unanswered.

Health officials said raw milk from the Pucketts' small dairy operation has sickened at least two adults and nine children, two of them critically, and asked that anyone who consumed Dee Creek dairy products contact local health departments.

The affected children were 1 to 13 years old, according to a Clark County Health Department statement. Eight cases were reported in southwestern Washington, seven in Clark County and one in neighboring Cowlitz County, and the other three were in nearby Clatsop County, Ore.

Two children remained hospitalized in critical condition, while three others had been treated at hospitals and released, the Clark County statement said.

Three Dee Creek employees sought medical attention for diarrhea, a typical symptom of E. coli-related illness, about the time the first of the more serious cases were reported, but their symptoms were not severe enough to warrant testing, Steenbarger said.

She asserted that milk from the farm had tested clean three times in recent weeks and suggested that the cause of the illnesses might lie elsewhere.

“Obviously, it appears there is a link to our farm,” Steenbarger said, “but it could have been mismanagement after it was out of our hands.

“It is hard to say how this could have come about. We don't know where it ends up or whose hands end up touching it. That's none of our businesses.”

The E. coli bacteria-related illnesses prompted an investigation by state Agriculture Department officials, who said the farm was not licensed to sell raw milk and was ordered in August to stop selling raw milk without a license.

“They're not a licensed, legal dairy operation, so right now they are shut down,” said Claudia Coles, the state Agriculture Department's food safety officer.

Dee Creek operators have denied selling the product, saying it is only distributed under a cow-share program in which consumers buy shares in an animal in exchange for part of the milk, but Coles and other officials say that arrangement is legal only if the state license is obtained.

The Pucketts have five cows and arranged to distribute raw milk to about 45 families, officials said.

Chrys Ostrander, spokesman for the Washington Association of Shareholder Dairy Owners, said Dee Creek's owners had their milk tested after learning of the outbreak and found no traces of E. coli but nonetheless told everyone who received milk from the farm to dump it.

“I consider them to be careful and conscientious farmers for whom this whole thing is a shock,” Ostrander said. “It's difficult for them, and of course it's difficult for the people who are ill, too.”

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