Raw milk infection spreads again on peninsula

Another outbreak of campylobacter infection tied to a Kenai Peninsula cow share operation has sickened five people, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

An earlier outbreak sickened more than 31 people in February. 

Both outbreaks have originated from Peninsula Diary, a raw milk cow share operation in Kasilof, said Laura Carpenter, public information officer for the state department of health.

Two people who drank the milk have sought medical care, said Michael Cooper, infectious disease program manager for the state section of epidemiology. All those sick are Kenai Peninsula Borough residents, he said. No one has died from the infection, he said.

The infection began in early May, he said.

The infection, caused from fecal contamination of a cow’s raw milk, can cause diarrhea, stomach pains, nausea and vomiting, fever, arthritis, or muscle weakness one to 10 days following exposure. The infection can also kill young children or those with compromised immune systems.  

The farm distributing the raw milk linked to the outbreak delivers to Kenai, Soldotna, Homer, Seward, Anchorage and Sitka. Kevin Byers owns the farm.

“This is the exact farm, same exact situation (as the last outbreak),” Cooper said.

The state health department contacted Byers once it discovered the outbreak and requested that he cease raw milk distribution and contact all his shareholders, Cooper said. As of January, Byers had about 150 active shareholders.

Byers declined to comment last Thursday for this story.

“He said he had contacted his shareholders and let them know,” Cooper said.

The health department cannot force Byers to shut his operation down because Byers only distributes the milk; his shareholders collectively own the cows.

“If they are owners of the cow, they can drink their milk,” state veterinarian Bob Gerlach said. “And there’s nothing we can do to prevent them from drinking the milk that is the product of an animal that is theirs.”

Cooper said home pasteurizing of the raw milk is also a method to reduce the likelihood of ingesting the bacteria.

The department of health also contacted the Homer Farmers’ Market, which held its first market Memorial Day weekend.

Robbi Mixon, Homer Farmers’ Market manager, said sign up for raw milk shares would not be done at the market this season.

Gerlach planned to visit Byers’ farm this week, as he did with the previous outbreak, to collect samples of the cows Byers manages, he said.

The campylobacter bacteria is a common symptom of farms, Gerlach said. A cow’s milk may test negative for the bacteria one day but, as the bacteria is prolific on farms, another testing may yield positive results, he said.

“That’s the difficulty of dealing with these types of operations,” he said.

More than 90 percent of Lower 48 dairy farms owned cows at one point that tested positive for the bacteria, according to a National Animal Health Monitoring System study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

Gerlach said that farm vegetables contaminated with feces of an infected animal can also carry the bacteria.

The state health department requests that any person drinking raw milk stop.

 Less than 10 children experienced lingering arthritis following the February outbreak, Cooper said.

Cooper said the number of infected Peninsula Dairy shareholders could rise. That was the trend after the initial outbreak with the previous infection, he said.

“For every one that is confirmed that you know about, there are (likely) 30 or more out there,” he said. 

It is difficult to determine, he said, as some who are sick do not report their symptoms.

The state health department requests that anyone who has had contact with raw milk and is experiencing campylobacter symptoms see their doctor and call the Section of Epidemiology Infectious Disease Program at 907-269-8000 or toll free at 1-800-478-0084 to report an infection.

Dan Schwartz is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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