The word “raw” sounds like something exciting and maybe a little dangerous. It makes you think of bloody steaks and wrestlers and untanned hides. “Milk,” on the other hand, evokes just the opposite: motherhood, kids with sippy cups, and Oscar-winning movies. Maybe it’s the uncomfortable juxtaposition of the two ideas that makes certain people so nervous about raw milk. As demand increases, state legislators, regulators and courts are all reexamining the issue of raw milk. But as some jurisdictions legalize while others crack down, farmers and milk drinkers are stuck in limbo.
Raw milk is simply ordinary milk that hasn’t been pasteurized. Pasteurization — the quick heating and cooling of fresh milk — kills bacteria that can cause food-borne illnesses. When Americans first began pasteurizing milk at the turn of the last century, testing was rudimentary and farms were far less hygienic. Milk quality varied tremendously, transit was slow and the milk that made it into cities often veered into unsafe territory. Pasteurization — which eradicated Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria — saved lives.
Today, the situation is different. Testing for the presence of such pathogens is much more precise, and farms are far cleaner. While processing milk remains a good choice for milk shipped to the population as a whole, there are a group of food rebels who would rather drink their milk straight from the cow. Some say they prefer the taste, calling it richer and more robust. Others say that pasteurization kills beneficial enzymes and helpful bacteria along with the baddies. Whatever their reasons for drinking the raw stuff, the proliferation of raw milk devotees willing to take a small risk for better dairy makes regulators unhappy, and they are looking for ways to crack down on milk speakeasies.
Federal law prohibits the transportation of raw milk across state lines for illicit purposes (i.e. selling the milk to consumers rather than processors). But 23 states currently ban the sale of raw milk within their borders as well. When federal or state regulators come across suspicious milk, they have a bad habit of pouring the stuff out first and asking questions later—much to the dismay of farmers who rely on the milk for their livelihood. The Midvalleyvu Family Farm, near Milwaukee, recently drew attention when a Wisconsin state legislator took up its cause after hearing that the regulatory agency that enforces the state’s ban on sales of raw milk had been investigating the owners for months, demanding bank records and canceled checks in addition to contacts and invoices for the farm’s suppliers. Midvalleyvu had been selling raw milk in defiance of the law — but there had been no reported health problems or consumer complaints linked to the farm. Eventually the farm gave up selling raw milk.
But every time an outlet for raw milk gets shut down, a new one opens up, and fans find their way to the moo juice. In Pennsylvania, a Mennonite farmer named Mark Nolt has been a victim of the regulators’ zeal. Starting in 2008, state officials have repeatedly raided his property, confiscating equipment, destroying his inventory and harassing his family because they say he is selling raw milk and cheese in violation of state law. Feds showed up at another Pennsylvania homestead earlier this week, this time on the private land of Amish farmer Dan Allgyer, with a similar mission.
As it stands, the future of raw milk is far from clear. Pennsylvania lawmakers are working on revisions to close loophole in the state’s raw milk laws and the Cheese Reporter (yes, there is such a publication) reports that the FDA may be gearing up to tweak the rules on the aging of domestic raw milk cheese as well. But in other areas of the country, thinking on the issue of raw milk is evolving toward more choice for consumers. Two bills to legalize the sale of raw milk have been introduced in Georgia, for instance. And six other state legislatures are debating the issue as well.
Stephen Sundlof, director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said raw milk drinkers are getting “pretty clever” these days. In Canada, a test case recently yielded a victory for raw milk drinkers. Ontario farmer Michael Schmidt was vindicated by the Canadian courts in late January after three years of legal squabbling. While raw milk is legal to drink in Canada, it is illegal to sell. Dairy farmers, unlike their bovine charges, can be a pretty sharp bunch. Schmidt was distributing raw milk, but avoiding regulations by selling his customers a one-quarter ownership stake (good for six years) in each of the 150 cows he keeps at $300 a pop. They own the cow fragment outright, but pay him to provide milking and delivery service. The court ruled that this system was within legally permissible boundaries. (Note that another place this arrangement has cropped up is California, where marijuana cooperatives help medical pot patients work around a similar legal-to-use, illegal-to-sell situation. Contraband is contraband, no matter whether you smoke it or drink it.)
Raw milk is a hot issue right now, with state, local, and federal governments reevaluating their stance on milk as consumer demand increases. The rulemakers have a choice: They can work with the customers they are supposed to be protecting to help them get what they want, or they can declare raw milk drinkers and sellers the enemy and persecute them. Sundlof recently called the “continued and escalating interest in raw milk consumption” a “problem for this industry, and certainly it’s a problem for the FDA.” It’s precisely that attitude that is driving raw milk producers underground and into increasingly elaborate legal arrangements. And while lawmakers and bureaucrats dither, an awful lot of law-abiding farmers are finding that their milk is going sour and their patience is running out.
Photo: Vintage milk ad from Life magazine, 1945.