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Halt To Raw Milk Sales Urged In Wake Of Cheese-Related Disease Outbreak

October 25, 1985

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Spurred by suspicion that unpasteurized milk played a role in contaminating cheese linked to dozens of listeriosis deaths, the county grand jury has urged state officials to consider halting raw milk sales.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, who released the grand jury’s Oct. 10 report Wednesday, said he would urge the state to follow its recommendations.

″If it were up to me, I would do it (ban raw milk),″ said Dr. Shirley Fannin, who heads the county’s communicable disease control unit.

The proposal drew protest from Harold Stueve, chief executive of City of Industry-based Alta-Dena Certified Dairy, California’s largest raw milk producer and one of the nation’s largest dairies.

Alta-Dena shipped raw milk from its own and other dairies’ herds to Jalisco Mexican Products Inc., which made the cheese found to be contaminated by Listeria monocytogenes bacteria.

″My gosh, raw milk had nothing to do with the outbreak″ of listeriosis deaths, Stueve said. He said raw milk is ″the safest milk in the world, bar none. That’s nature’s most perfect food. They (the grand jurors) don’t understand it.″

Different agencies give varying estimates of the number of people sickened and killed by the March-through-August epidemic linked to Jalisco cheese.

Los Angeles County alone reported 130 cases, including 42 deaths. The fatalities were 17 unborn fetuses, 10 newborns and 15 adults. About half the victims investigated by county health officials had eaten Jalisco cheese.

Estimates of the statewide toll vary, but there were roughly 250 cases, including about 85 deaths.

In a series of recent interviews with The Associated Press, Fannin and other county health officials said they believe there was a failure in Jalisco’s pasteurization process that failed to kill bacteria in cheese. They suspect, but haven’t proved, that the bacteria came from raw milk used to make the cheese.

Preliminary tests suggested Listeria was present in some dairy herds used to supply Jalisco. However, the national Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta said in a report released this week that it has been unable to pinpoint the source of the epidemic because final tests found none of the dangerous bacteria in the 27 herds.

The county district attorney’s office has been investigating allegations that Jalisco received more raw milk than its cheese-making equipment could possibly pasteurize.

The state Department of Food and Agriculture, which would have jurisdiction to halt raw milk sales, will review the grand jury report, said Rex Magee, an associate director of the department. He declined to comment on the report until he had a chance to read it.

Most health officials believe pasteurization, the quick heating of milk to 161 degrees and sustained at that temperature for 15 seconds, kills Listeria monocytogenes bacteria. Some researchers argue the bacteria might survive if shielded within blood cells in milk.

Jalisco’s plant in suburban Artesia was shut down in mid-June amid a multi- government agency investigation.

During the epidemic, Hahn proposed a resolution suspending Alta-Dena’s raw milk sales, but the supervisors threw it out. The supervisors did approve Hahn’s motion for the grand jury investigation.

The grand jury also urged faster, more efficient distribution of infectious disease information by the county through telephone and follow-up postcard warnings from health officials to retailers and others handling contaminated products.

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