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Some dairy-delivery services switch to Maine firm.

Byline: Elaine Thompson

Dairy farmers in Central Massachusetts said the listeria contamination at Whittier Farms has had no noticeable effect on their businesses. But some home dairy-delivery services and farm stands that got their products from Whittier have switched to a Maine dairy.

Marjorie Cooper, 65, whose family has owned Cooper's Hilltop Dairy in Rochdale since the 1930s, said they process their own milk. But they and other dairy people are very concerned about what's happening at Whittier Farms.

"It sends chills down our spine, as it probably does the CEO at Hood. We're in the food industry. When something like this happens, we're all scampering around wondering what went wrong,'' Ms. Cooper said. "We hope the (state) public health department is able to come to some conclusion that makes sense to those of us in the business. As we look at things we just don't know how it would happen, particularly with the Whittiers. They do a very good job of looking after their cows and their customers."

The state Department of Public Health has determined that milk from Whittier Farms was the source of listeria contamination that resulted in the deaths of two Worcester County men: a 75-year-old in June and a 78-year-old in October. The contamination also sickened an 87-year-old man in November and a 34-year-old pregnant woman, who subsequently miscarried.

No one could be reached at Maple Farm Dairy in Mendon, which apparently bought dairy products from Whittier. But a recorded message announced to customers that normal deliveries resumed yesterday.

"Our new milk supplier is Oakhurst Dairy. Information will be provided about this dairy ... My sincere apologies for anyone who was not contacted about the Whittier milk problem. I'm so sorry if we didn't contact you ..." the phone voice message said.

Linda M. Wheeler, whose family owns the seven-generation Balance Rock Farm in Berlin, said that since Whittier's production has been suspended, they began getting deliveries from Oakhurst Dairy of Portland, Maine, on Dec. 28. She said the farm was contacted by Francis Gibson with Gibson Brothers Dairy in Worcester, who helped them find an alternate supplier.

"Oakhurst is good for us because they have artificial growth hormone-free dairy milk. That's what we were carrying before and we wanted to stay with hormone free," Ms. Wheeler said. "I would prefer to have glass bottles, but our customers seem to be dealing with this in a very kind and patient manner. They've really been great."

Francis Gibson said he referred some Whittier wholesale customers to Oakhurst because his company has been distributing the Maine dairy products throughout Central Massachusetts for the past five years.

He and his brother, Glenn, own Gibson Brothers Dairy home delivery. They also manage the wholesale dairy division for Acme Pre-Pak Corp. in Worcester, which distributes Oakhurst products to hundreds of stores, restaurants and pizza shops throughout the central and eastern part of the state. The company also provides Oakhurst dairy products to 25 to 30 public school districts in the area.

Mr. Gibson said he referred dairy services that used Whittier to Oakhurst because the Maine company carries similar products "direct from the farm ... local New England fresh milk." Oakhurst, a family-owned business that began in 1921, was the first dairy distributor in the country to pay its farmers not to use artificial growth hormone in their milk. The company is also environmentally conscious, Mr. Gibson said. Stanley Bennett, spokesman and co-owner of Oakhurst, did not readily return a phone call yesterday.

"The reason for us to offer their products is by using Whittier, people were looking for a high-end product ... something different from what's available in the supermarket. We knew this would be a good substitute to offer,'' Mr. Gibson said. "Nobody knows what's going to happen to Whittier. But these people still need milk."

In addition to Balance Rock Farm and Maple Farm Dairy, Mr. Gibson said, other local home delivery businesses that he has helped switched to Oakhurst include Bolton Orchards, Model Dairy in Boylston, Springdell Farm in Littleton and Idylwilde Farms in Acton.

Dale Bangma, owner of Bangma Dairy in Uxbridge, said that since the Whittier incident, he has received several phone calls from people who want to know if his business does home delivery. He suspects that some may have been Whittier customers. Bangma, however, discontinued its home delivery business in 2001 for financial reasons. It is now a beef farm and ice cream stand, Mr. Bangma said. Like most other area dairy farmers, Mr. Bangma said he feels bad for the Whittiers.

"They are great people. If they could have avoided it, I'm sure they would have," he said.

Irene Drakakis, co-owner of Tony's Pizza in Sutton, said the restaurant has been a Whittier customer for a long time. She said she called the family this week to express her support.

"They're honest and hardworking. They have respect. They're very respectful," she said. "We called them to tell them that when everything clears up, let us know, and we'll come back."

Steven H. Foskett Jr. of the Telegram & Gazette staff contributed to this report.
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jan 4, 2008
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