Friday, March 24, 2006
By DEAN BAKER, Columbian staff writer
A Woodland dairy will be fined $8,000 for furnishing contaminated unpasteurized milk that sickened at least 18 people in the Vancouver-Portland area in December, the Washington State Agriculture Department announced Thursday.
Those who got sick from exposure to E.coli bacteria included 15 children. Five of them were hospitalized and two were placed on life support due to life-threatening infection. All are recovering.
The department’s notice said officials intend to assess a civil penalty against Dee Creek Farm, leaving the farm the opportunity to request a hearing before an administrative law judge to contest the department’s findings and the penalty.
The department announced its investigators joined those from Clark and Cowlitz county health departments to conclusively link the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak to milk from the farm, which was operated as an unlicensed cow-share dairy, with 45 parties owning shares in five Jersey milk cows.
The dairy owners, Anita and Michael Puckett and Summer Steenbarger, couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday. State agriculture department spokesman Jason Kelly said the farm remains under a cease-and-desist order from the Cowlitz County Health Department prohibiting it from distributing milk products.
Kelly said the Pucketts have expressed interest in becoming a licensed dairy operator and dairy processor but have submitted no application to the state.
In Seattle, attorney Drew Falkenstein said his firm continues to gather evidence and plans to file suit against Dee Creek Dairy on behalf of two families whose members got ill from the milk. Falkenstein’s firm, Marler Clark, specializes in food liability lawsuits. It won more than $20 million in settlements following a 1993 E. coli outbreak at Jack in the Box restaurants and a $12 million settlement in 1998 in the Odwalla apple juice outbreak.
The state investigation found many potential sources of contamination at Dee Creek, including mud and manure a foot deep on the barn’s dirt floor, the presence of chickens in the barn during milking, and a lack of basic sanitation practices.
The farm was found to be distributing raw milk without the required dairy-milk-producer or milk-processing licenses. None of the farm’s cows had been given required tests for tuberculosis or brucellosis, the department said in a news release.
Also, Dee Creek Farm had purchased a cow in Oregon and transported the animal into Washington without the proper animal inspection certificates, the department said. For each of eight violations, the department plans to issue the maximum $1,000 penalty.
“These E. coli illnesses were the result of disregard for the law and poor sanitation practices,” said Claudia Coles, the agriculture department’s food safety program manager. “The dairy and food safety laws were established to protect people from dangerous or even deadly food-borne illnesses. The department will continue to enforce these laws in an effort to protect the public’s health.”
On Aug. 11, 2005, the department sent Dee Creek Farm a warning letter and license application after the Portland Tribune newspaper reported that the dairy was distributing raw milk. The agency informed the dairy that unlicensed sale of raw milk is illegal, including milk distributed through a cow-share arrangement.
Dee Creek Farm responded by denying that they were selling milk due to the cow-share deals but expressed interest in becoming licensed. The farm has never submitted a license application, however, the department said. A milk–producer license is free and the milk-processing license fee is $55.
Dean Baker writes about agriculture. Reach him at 360-759-8009 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously: Eighteen Vancouver-Portland residents, including 15 children, became ill after drinking milk from Dee Creek Farm near Woodland in December. Three of the children were placed under intensive care, two of them on life support. All are recovering.
What’s new: The Washington State Department of Agriculture announced Thursday it plans to fine the dairy owners $8,000.
What’s next: The dairy owners have expressed an interest in becoming a licensed dairy operator and processor but have submitted no application. The dairy remains under a cease-and-desist order issued by the Cowlitz County Health Department, banned from distributing milk products.