The Raw Deal

By Thomas Bartlett
Sunday, October 1, 2006

IT ARRIVED VIA FEDEX IN A BOX MARKED "PERISHABLE." Inside, packed in Styrofoam and dry ice, I found a one-gallon plastic jug. There was no label or price, no brand name or expiration date -- just a four-letter word scrawled in black marker across the side: Milk.

The milk itself cost $6, considerably more than the $3.39 I pay at the grocery. There was an additional charge of $2.50 for gel packs to hold the jug in place. Plus $9 for the Styrofoam cooler. Plus $10 for the dry ice. Add in shipping, and the total came to $45.24. For one gallon of milk.

But this wasn't just any milk. This was raw, straight-from-the-cow, the real stuff. It hadn't been pasteurized, homogenized or otherwise altered. In Maryland, where I live, as in most other states, you can't walk into a store and buy raw milk. That's because, while possession of raw milk is legal, selling it is a crime. It's also a violation of federal law to transport raw milk across state lines with the intent to sell it for human consumption. The Tennessee dairy that sold it to me offers raw milk as pet food. The dairy's Web site warns that "due to significant legal and liability issues, we cannot and will not answer questions regarding human consumption of these or any other raw milk products -- please don't ask."

Please don't ask, and we won't tell. Wink, wink.

The issue of selling raw milk is, legally speaking, dicey. To determine exactly how dicey, I call Ted Elkin, deputy director of the Office of Food Protection and Consumer Health Services at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Elkin is in charge of making sure the state's dairy laws are enforced.

"So," I begin carefully, "Maryland's position on raw milk is . . .?"

"Raw milk is illegal for sale," Elkin says. "Period."

"Huh," I reply.

To help drive this point home, he compares selling raw milk to selling pot.

"Interesting," I say. At that moment, I am standing in my kitchen with the fridge door open, staring at my gallon of possible contraband.

"Our position is that it's bad," Elkin says. "But we're not trying to be the Gestapo about this. I don't have the resources to go after individuals." This all made me a little nervous.

Using an analogy, Elkin explains that a small-time heroin dealer in Baltimore might be able to elude the authorities for quite a while. So, during our conversation, raw milk was compared to marijuana and heroin. What's more, Hitler's secret police were mentioned -- in passing, sure, but still.

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