The Food and Drug Administration's recent ban on the interstate sale of raw, unpasteurized milk won't have much official effect in the metropolitan area -- since the sale of raw milk is already illegal in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. But that doesn't mean that local consumers aren't still interested in purchasing it, or haven't found ways to get it. The ban will also not prohibit people from buying raw milk in other states where it is legal -- such as Pennsylvania -- and transporting it over state lines themselves.
Because of raw milk's repeated association with infectious diseases, such as salmonella poisoning, the FDA concluded in the Federal Register that "any form of raw milk in interstate commerce poses a health risk." Proponents of raw milk contend that pasteurization destroys valuable nutrients, although FDA reported that "the theoretical health benefits of raw milk have never withstood scientific scrutiny." Numerous studies have shown pasteurization has either "no effect or practically no effect on the major nutrients in milk," the register stated.
Despite the documented risks, at least some local consumers seem willing to take them. "We get requests all the time," for raw milk, said Patrick Dwyer, owner of Patrick's Good Food Store in Adams-Morgan. Suzanne Donner of Natural Beef Farms said she gets similar inquiries.
While Richard Koslow, co-owner of Organic Farms, said he does not know of anyone selling raw milk but believes there must be "an underground network" for it, health officials in Maryland, Virginia and the District report only a small number of illegal raw milk sales in the area. Those that have occurred have been linked to farmers with small dairy operations.
There are two ways that sellers have attempted to circumvent the law, say local officials. A few years ago, some individuals were trying to sell raw milk by labeling it "not for human consumption," according to Bennett Minor of the Virginia Department of Agriculture's Bureau for Dairy Services. While these products, ostensibly sold as pet food, weren't distributed widely, future claims of the sort would be "questioned seriously," he said.
Other individuals have attempted to sell raw milk by leasing or selling stock in their cows or goats to consumers under the contention that they are selling animals, not milk. A case is currently pending before the Virginia Supreme Court, in fact, in which an Albermarle County woman is selling "interest" in her goats; the raw milk is a byproduct for investors. In 1983, the woman tried a similar arrangement, in which she rented her goats. The case also went to the state's Supreme Court, which found it illegal.
The FDA's interstate ban will have the most impact in California, where Stueve's Natural, the country's only dairy that commercially produces certified raw milk and raw milk products, is located. And although there are about 20 states that still permit the sale of intrastate raw milk (including California), Sid Wolfe, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, predicts that states will soon follow the federal government and ban sales within their own boundaries. The Federal District Court for the District of Columbia ordered the FDA to ban the sale of interstate raw milk as a result of a suit filed by the consumer group.
"The idea that an issue resolved in the 19th century by Louis Pasteur has to take until almost the 21st century to get resolved" is ridiculous, Wolfe said. "Of all the issues we've worked on, it's the one in which there is no scientific controversy."
The ban also applies to raw milk products, such as cottage cheese, butter and buttermilk. It does not apply to cheeses that have been made with raw milk but have been aged under specific guidelines to kill harmful bacteria