Hawaii's only large-scale milk processor has been ordered to stop selling 2 percent milk over concerns about bacteria contamination, the state Health Department has announced.
Meadow Gold Dairies got a cease-and-desist order Monday after lab results from milk samples showed higher-than-allowable limits of the Coliform bacteria.
Shortly after the order was issued, 2% percent milk was pulled from shelves at a number of grocery stores, though that was not required because the milk was not recalled.
Times Supermarket said it took the voluntary step "to avoid any concerns shoppers may have."
In a statement to Hawaii News Now, Meadow Gold said "consumers do not need to throw out milk."
"We test our products regularly before, during and after processing to ensure quality, and it’s important to understand that product being sold in stores is not affected. We have not received any consumer complaints," the statement said.
"All our current internal testing indicates no quality or safety concerns, yet until regulatory testing confirms the same, we have been asked to stop production of 2 percent milk at our Honolulu plant. In order to continue supplying milk to consumers in Hawaii, we are moving the production of 2 percent milk to other facilities, including our processing plant in Hilo on the Big Island."
No other milk products from Meadow Gold are affected by the cease-and-desist order.
The Health Department said samples of the milk taken as far back as Jan. 19 revealed elevated levels of the bacteria.
Follow-up tests taken on Feb. 6 and Feb. 22 also showed excessive levels of the bacteria, and two of the samples had levels that were 15 times the maximum allowable amount, but even at these levels, health officials say there's no link to illness.
"It's absolutely safe to drink. These are quality control issues. These are not imminent health hazards that we pulled these milk products for," said Peter Oshiro, program manager of the DOH Sanitation Branch.
Under state regulations, DOH is allowed to suspend the distribution of a milk product when tests show elevated amounts of bacteria three times during the five most recent sample periods.
“Milk production is regulated with routine testing both at the farm and after packaging to ensure a safe product,” Oshiro said.
“Department of Health inspectors will work with Meadow Gold Dairies to investigate the possible source of contamination, approve a plan of correction, and conduct further testing to confirm the company meets the standards to resume two-percent reduced fat milk distribution and sale.”
Before it can resume distribution of 2 percent milk, Meadow Gold must pass health inspections and undergo additional testing of product samples.
Food safety expert Tom Frigge says Coliform is usually an indicator of feces contamination. He says the bacteria is naturally found in raw milk, but the pasteurization process is supposed to bring levels down so it's safe to drink.
"Either the pasteurization process isn't up to par or the milk got re-contaminated after the pasteurization process. That can be through unsanitary equipment that hasn't been sanitized completely or through the workers somehow touching the milk," said Frigge.