By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 15, 2007
It is creamier than anything you've ever tasted, its fans say, with flavor like a shot of vanilla, chocolate and coffee all at once. The more zealous advocates even say it can lead to a healthier life.
But raw, unpasteurized milk -- as in straight from the udder -- is illegal to sell in Maryland, for what health officials say is good reason. Now Kevin Oyarzo, a farmer near Frederick, is challenging the state's opposition to raw milk in court, and Maryland's raw milk converts are pinning their hopes on his lawsuit.
Each state throughout the country regulates its raw milk, and many -- including Virginia and Maryland as well as the District -- have banned its sale. That doesn't mean it's illegal to consume: Farmers and other cow owners are allowed to drink it. And some raw milk enthusiasts are using that legal point to try to distribute it more widely.
The scheme works this way: Consumers buy shares in a cow from a farmer who feeds and boards the animal. In exchange, shareholders receive raw milk. Although many farmers have set up such cow-sharing programs in other states, Oyarzo, a farmer of Buckeystown, was the first to try it publicly in Maryland.
Last summer, he met with state officials to go over his cow-share plan, bringing along his attorney and Sally Fallon, a national proponent for raw milk. They received their answer a few weeks later when the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene announced a change in regulations prohibiting cow-sharing for raw milk.
"It seems to us it's just a transparent attempt to purchase milk, which is prohibited," said Tom Elkin, the department's deputy director of food protection and consumer health services. "All we did is clarify the meaning of sale to include cow-sharing."
But Oyarzo's attorney says that the cow-sharing plan follows existing laws and that the sudden change in the regulation was unjustified.
"The law says you can consume but you can't sell. We're not selling," said Baltimore lawyer Paul Walter.
Oyarzo did not return calls seeking comment, but one customer who has bought farm products from Oyarzo for several years described his farm as clean and the meat sold there as always fresh. Oyarzo began primarily selling organic eggs and chicken, and he expanded a few years ago to organic turkey and beef, said Lorrie Leigh, a Columbia resident.
In some states, including California and Pennsylvania, consumers can buy raw milk from stores. In others, consumers can buy it only directly from dairy farmers. In still other states, raw milk can be sold only labeled as pet food, a transaction many sellers conduct with a no-questions-asked kind of understanding.
But in some states, such as Virginia, cow-share programs are the only route, and the idea is being tested in the courts. Two months ago, Ohio's Department of Agriculture revoked one dairy farmer's license for cow-sharing raw milk. A county judge overturned the state's decision and sided with the farmer, but the case faces a possible appeal.
The same month, a farmer in Canada went on a 28-day hunger strike, living only on raw milk to protest officers who raided his farm and arrested him for running a cow-sharing program.
Last year, an Amish farmer in Ohio appealed a similar case on religious grounds after an undercover agent asked him to fill an unmarked container with raw milk and then had the state revoke his dairy license.
In recent years, the battle between raw milk proponents and regulators has taken on a decidedly cloak-and-dagger feel, with secret raw milk clubs, sting operations and hush-hush Internet sales.
Proponents describe raw milk as an elixir with almost magical properties. With anecdotal testimony, enthusiasts say it has eased arthritis, prevented such ailments as tooth decay and scurvy, and successfully treated a host of diseases.
Health officials, however, have not been moved and still hold to the pasteurization process, a brief treatment with high heat that is designed to kill 99.99 percent of microorganisms. The Food and Drug Administration, which banned interstate sales of raw milk in 1987, has likened drinking unpasteurized milk to "playing Russian roulette with your health."
Pasteurization, federal and state health officials say, kills bacteria that in some cases could cause life-threatening diseases.
But raw milk drinkers say that same pasteurization process kills important enzymes and compounds that contribute to a body's health and also give raw milk a more robust flavor.
"There's a big push for raw milk from parents whose children have health problems like autism, asthma and failure to thrive," said Fallon, founder of Weston A. Price Foundation, a natural-foods advocacy group that has spearheaded much of the raw milk lobbying. The prevailing theory in her camp is that proponents are facing an organized effort against raw milk driven by the country's massive dairy industry.
"The real concern is not health at all, it's economic," Fallon said. "Raw milk has a fantastic way of reviving small farms, sustaining them. They don't want that."
It is a notion that Elkin from the Maryland health department calls ridiculous. "There's a large body of scientific evidence for pasteurizing milk," he said. "There's a reason for it -- to kill pathogens."