An alliance of food activists and anti-regulation libertarians is battling to legalize raw, unpasteurized milk, despite warnings from health officials about the rising toll of illnesses affecting adults and children alike.
As the popularity of raw milk has grown, so too have associated outbreaks. They have nearly doubled over the past five years, with eight out of 10 cases occurring in states that have legalized sales of the unpasteurized product, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Public health officials have also documented how pathogens in raw milk have produced kidney failure in more than a dozen cases and paralysis in at least two.
But distrust of government and a thirst for the milk have helped fuel the movement to do away with federal and state restrictions despite the warnings. In states where raw milk remains banned, black and “gray” markets have emerged for enthusiasts seeking “moonshine milk” in the belief that bacteria-killing heat from pasteurization also kills powerful enzymes and eliminates other properties that can cure allergies, asthma and even autism.
During this legislative session, 40 bills have been introduced in 23 state capitals, all seeking to legalize unpasteurized milk within state borders.
And in Congress, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), who raises grass-fed cattle and says he grew up drinking unpasteurized milk, introduced two bills last week that would get the Food and Drug Administration out of the business of policing raw milk sales.
It is illegal for raw milk dairy farmers to sell and transport their product across state lines — a ban the FDA is charged with enforcing. But every day, thousands of gallon-sized glass jars filled with raw milk move from state to state, arriving at consumers’ front doors through co-ops, buyers clubs and from friends and relatives who sometimes pack the milk in dry ice and ship it via FedEx.
Consumers pay as much as $12 a gallon for raw milk from cows and goats. And the CDC estimates that 1 to 3 percent of Americans are drinking it. Sometimes the only jars that buyers can find are labeled, “For Pet Consumption Only.”
“No one is feeding this to their pets,” said Massie, who calls his bills “milk freedom legislation.” “They are buying raw milk for themselves and their families. And they are doing it because we have some very stupid laws out there.”
Fueling the movement is a Washington-based nonprofit, the Weston A. Price Foundation, that was founded in 1999 by nutritionist Mary G. Enig and Maryland dairy farmer Sally Fallon Morell.
Its realmilk.com Web site directs members to write and call lawmakers in support of raw milk legislation, connects consumers with producers, and targets the FDA’s “secret war” on unpasteurized milk. In 2007, the foundation’s firepower grew when it formed a separate nonprofit — the Virginia-based Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund.
“The government is not listening to what consumers are asking for,” said Fallon Morell, whose farm is in Maryland, where raw milk sales are banned. “People are sick and tired of industrialized food.”
Since their legislative campaign began nearly 15 years ago, seven states have passed laws or regulations allowing people to buy into cow- or herd-sharing programs to get raw milk. An additional three states have approved raw milk for pet consumption. Arkansas has eased its ban on sales of raw milk and allows purchases from farmers. Ten other states have eased restrictions that blocked dairy farmers from selling to retail establishments.
In 2010, the battle to legalize raw milk found its emotional rallying cry in the predawn raid of an Amish farm by FDA agents and armed U.S. marshals. For months, undercover FDA agents had made straw purchases of Daniel Allgyer’s unpasteurized milk, posing as new customers of his Pennsylvania-based buyers club, and documented deliveries across state lines to homes in Maryland and the District of Columbia.
Allgyer shuttered his farm in response to the FDA’s enforcement efforts, and outraged members of Allgyer’s Grassfed On the Hill buyers club staged a protest on the Mall, drinking raw milk within view of the Capitol. The leading libertarian in Congress at the time, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), took up their cause, blasting bans on raw milk sales as “pasteurization without representation.”
In statehouses across the nation, the Amish farmer’s tale — along with several arrests of raw dairy farmers by state officials in several states — struck a chord among lawmakers as examples of government overkill.
Among the 40 state bills this year, several would allow cow- and herd-sharing programs that provide a way around laws that ban direct milk sales. With them, consumers are allowed to buy a share of a dairy cow with a dozen or more people. The milk they get from the cow is technically theirs, so it does not legally constitute a milk purchase.
Kitty Hockman-Nicholas operates a cow-sharing program in Virginia, which has legalized the setup. Her Hedgebrook Farm tends to 10 jersey cows on behalf of their client-owners. “They’re paying me for that — not the milk,” the third-generation farmer said.
In states where raw milk sales remain illegal, agriculture officials said enforcement is largely driven by complaints, which trigger a warning letter that usually ends the practice. But activists say the movement has succeeded in forcing the government to back off.
FDA officials would not disclose enforcement figures or discuss their strategy.
Although raw milk advocates acknowledge some health concerns, they say it is one of the safest food products available.
Advocates insist that the health benefits of “nature’s perfect food” are crucial to a healthy diet. They cite European studies that found that children who are raised on farms and grow up drinking raw milk have fewer allergies and fewer cases of asthma than children who live in urban environments and drink pasteurized milk.
But Michele Jay-Russell, a research microbiologist and manager of the Western Center for Food Safety at the University of California at Davis, said the studies do not determine how much of the health gains come from raw milk, as compared with other factors such as exposure to pathogens from livestock. (Jay-Russell is affiliated with realrawmilkfacts.com, a rival site to the Weston A. Price Foundation’s site.)
The CDC, which analyzed more than a decade of outbreak data, said the chance of getting sick as part of an outbreak caused by raw milk is 150 times greater than from pasteurized milk. The agency reported that 796 people in 24 states had become sick after consuming raw milk between 2006 and 2011, the latest years for which complete data are available.
CDC and FDA officials say 55 percent of the victims are younger than 18 and got the beverage from a parent or guardian.
“When you give it to a young child who gets an E.coli infection, and their kidneys fail, they didn’t get to make that choice,” said Robert V. Tauxe, the CDC’s deputy director of food-borne, water-borne and environmental diseases.
Raw milk advocates say they distrust the CDC’s numbers on illnesses and outbreaks.
The American Academy of Pediatrics in January became the latest in a long list of organizations to say there is no scientific evidence to support the health claims of raw milk advocates. The academy is advising that infants, children and pregnant women avoid raw milk and dairy products made with raw milk. The recommendation came after life-threatening infections and kidney failure in children who consumed raw milk, especially milk tainted with the virulent bacteria E.coli 0157:H7.
After Kylee Young drank contaminated raw milk when she was 23 months old, she spent three months hospitalized near her home in Oregon, suffered a stroke and underwent transplant surgery to receive one of her mother’s kidneys.
Now 3, she receives medication and nutrition through a feeding tube. She cannot walk, she cannot talk and she goes to physical, occupational and speech therapy five times a week.
“She was a perfectly healthy toddler,” said her mother, Jill Brown. “I thought I was doing the right thing, the healthy thing. I didn’t understand the risk.”
Some raw milk connoisseurs and dairy farmers call for a middle ground. Since so many people seem determined to drink unprocessed milk and some states allow it, they argue, shouldn’t dairy farmers and health officials find some way to make it safe?
State officials and university researchers are trying in Pennsylvania, which had the highest number of outbreaks within the past five years. They are working with farmers such as Edwin Shank, owner of the Family Cow, whose milk has been linked to three outbreaks from a pathogen called campylobacter. The pathogen has the CDC especially worried because it has been the fastest-growing cause of raw milk outbreaks in the past five years.
“They shook us to our core,” Shank said of the illnesses. “We had to decide: Are we going to stop or are we going to find a way to do it better?”
In March, Shank secured a certification from the Raw Milk Institute (RAWMI), created in 2011 by the largest raw milk producer in the nation — Mark McAfee, owner of California-based Organic Pastures. Shank said he now takes more precautions than required by the state and by RAWMI, adding an extra layer of on-site testing before delivering milk to clients.
Most who become ill from campylobacter typically have flu-like symptoms that last from one to three days. But in two cases in the past five years, state health officials and private doctors determined that victims became paralyzed after the pathogen triggered Guillain-Barré syndrome, which occurs when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks part of the nervous system.
Mari Tardiff, a 58-year-old Californian, said she fell ill nearly six years ago for “the romantic notion” about the benefits of raw milk. But in June 2008, she was paralyzed from the neck down after drinking raw milk tainted with campylobacter that she bought from a cow-share program she joined that month.
“The microbes are so unpredictable — it’s Russian roulette,” said Tardiff, who remains partially paralyzed. “I lost my career as a public health nurse. I lost relationships. . . . I’ve lost my identity.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.