Raw Milk: Udderly Foolish?

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Don't even try to separate Chris Schlicht from her raw, unpasteurized milk.

"You bet I've got raw milk!" Schlicht wrote in a recent e-mail message. "I can say that raw milk and home-raised meat saved my life."

Before she moved to Gig Harbor, Wash., Schlicht says she was "sick, underweight and having an impossible time trying to get pregnant." Then she began drinking raw milk, planted a garden and started raising her own livestock for meat. "I gained weight and got pregnant in less than six months," she notes. "I've been drinking raw milk ever since." So do her husband and her son, now 22.

Nor are they alone in their passion. Despite evidence that raw or unpasteurized milk carries health risks, growing numbers of consumers are skirting laws prohibiting the sale of unpasteurized milk through creative solutions called "cow sharing." In theory, the practice allows them to buy part of an animal and then, as a co-owner, acquire and drink its raw milk.

But some states are cracking down on these arrangements or tightening laws to prevent them. In Maryland, for example, where it has long been illegal to sell raw milk for public consumption, officials adopted emergency regulations in October to stop farmers from selling shares of livestock to consumers.

"We believe that it is a sham to circumvent the law," says Ted Elkin, deputy director of Maryland's Office of Food Protection and Consumer Health Services. A farmer has since sued to overturn the new regulation. The case remains in litigation.

Raw milk can't be sold in the District, and animal sharing isn't an option, since there aren't any farms.

In Virginia, raw milk can only be sold to processors that will pasteurize it. Animal sharing is monitored to be sure that it "involves true ownership and not a scheme to sell raw milk," notes John Beers, dairy program supervisor for the Virginia State Office of Dairy and Foods.

"We certainly have seen an increase in raw milk consumption over the last four to five years," Beers says. "My counterparts in other states are all dealing with this issue of people wanting raw milk, too. It seems like the interest in this area continues to grow."

So do the reports of illness linked to raw milk. Earlier this year, Pennsylvania officials halted sales of raw milk from Stump Acres Dairy of New Salem, Pa., after two outbreaks of salmonella were tied to its products. In July, the state health department asked the dairy to stop giving away raw milk to consumers following a third salmonella case involving its customers.

Elsewhere across the country, outbreaks of E. coli, campylobacter jejuni, listeria and other serious illnesses have been attributed to raw milk and its products. From 1998 to 2005, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tied 45 outbreaks of food-borne disease to raw milk or to cheese made with unpasteurized milk. More than 1,000 people became ill, 104 were hospitalized and two died, according to the CDC.

Drinking raw milk "is like playing Russian roulette," says Gregory Miller, vice president of the National Dairy Council. "Why would you take that risk?"

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