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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?"

The Food and Drug Administration agrees. It bans interstate sale of raw milk and raw milk products. Agencies from the CDC to the World Health Organization also warn consumers against drinking unpasteurized milk, although a handful of states, including California and Washington, allow raw milk to be sold in stores.

Public health officials find the interest in raw milk a concern. What proponents of raw milk "call 'life forces,' we call bacteria," Elkin says.

In July, scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported test results for raw milk collected from 861 farms in 21 states. Nearly a quarter contained bacteria linked to human illness, including 5 percent with listeria, 3 percent with salmonella and 4 percent with types of E. coli that can cause diarrhea and other gastrointestinal illnesses. Less than 1 percent of samples had the most dangerous form of E. coli, 0157:H7.

"There are definitely measurable levels [of unhealthy bacteria] and they are probably more prevalent than what we are seeing," said Jeffrey Karns, a microbiologist at the USDA's Environmental Microbial Safety Laboratory in Beltsville, who led the study.

That doesn't bother Sally Fallon, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a District-based organization that has been leading the charge to make raw milk available to consumers. "We're not talking about raw milk from a typical conventional dairy," she says. "That milk could pose a danger. But milk from cows fed on pastures actually have their own antimicrobial components that keep it safe."

"People say that small farms have happy cows that don't have pathogens," Karns says, but he adds that there is no evidence to support that contention.

Raw-milk proponents also contend that it has more nutritional value, packing protein, more antibodies, healthful enzymes and even more calcium than pasteurized milk. "You aren't going to change the amount of calcium in a glass of milk by not heating it!" says Stuart Patton, professor emeritus of dairy science at Pennsylvania State University. Patton notes that pasteurization may destroy a small percentage of B vitamins, particularly thiamin, and about 20 percent of the vitamin C in milk. But he also points out that milk is not a major source of either nutrient.

Some milk enzymes may also not make it through the pasteurization process. But as Karns notes, "the stomach is so acidic that it is likely to kill those enzymes anyway."

The debate over raw milk is one that Patton, 84, has heard often during his long career. "There can be all kinds of speculations based on people's hopes and wishes," he says, noting that studies have yet to prove raw milk's safety.

"The milk is still the milk," Patton says. "Pasteurization is such minimal treatment that it does not change milk chemically very much."

Try telling that to Don Fowles, 64, of Gaithersburg. He's been drinking raw milk for about a year, since his daughter gave him Fallon's book, "Nourishing Traditions." He pays $5.50 a gallon to a farmer whom he declines to identify for fear of getting him in trouble.

"It's wonderful," notes Fowles, who says he no longer suffers from lactose intolerance. He and his wife use the raw milk to make kefir, a cultured-yogurt-like drink. "I drink that just about every day," he says. "Or I have it on cereal. Tonight, we put it on blackberries from the garden."

His only complaint about raw milk is that he must skirt the law to buy it. "It is very, very frustrating," Fowles says. "We have to go through a lot of hoops to get our milk."

But Peggy Thiel, 52, of Spring Grove, Pa., who grew up drinking raw milk on her family's dairy farm in Wisconsin, says she learned the benefits of pasteurization the hard way. Thiel says she and her older brother were often sick until the family doctor urged her mother to begin pasteurizing their milk. Their mother bought a small countertop pasteurizer and the illnesses stopped.

That was enough proof for Thiel, who says, "I have no desire to drink raw milk."

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