H ow fortunate are these fetching, grass-fed Jersey cows — Aida, Carmen, Mimi, Lucia and Butterfly. Each morning, they’re milked to Mozart before resting on a verdant slope at the postcard-pretty P.A. Bowen Farmstead, the only working dairy farm in Prince George’s County.
The 95-acre Brandywine spread, first settled in the 17th century, uses traditional methods and the latest in organic and bio-dynamic technology. The farm produces award-winning artisan cheese (including a tasty Prince George’s Blue), eggs with pastel-hued shells, and pastured chicken, all sold at the cheery store three days a week. It’s a model of pastoral commerce serving the needs of a market hungry for fresh, healthful food.
But then there’s the store’s latest product. Available since mid-October, it’s among the nation’s most debated and controversial beverages, a tempest in a polyethylene jug: raw milk.
Unpasteurized, unhomogenized, unadulterated, straight from the udder, quickly cooled but never heated (which would be pasteurization), milk the way folks drank it for centuries.
Depending on whom you to talk to, raw milk is either the morning elixir of natural health or a frequently poisonous potable riddled with enough bacteria and pathogens to make you end your day on the bathroom floor or at the hospital.
The liquid food fight over raw milk has raged for years. There are rival Web sites: Realmilk.com (glass very much full, pictures of happy cows and children with milk mustaches) and Realrawmilkfacts.com (glass very much deadly, photos and videos of sick children with IVs).
It is legal to provide raw milk for human consumption in 37 states through sales, cow or herd share (a bovine version of a CSA share), but Maryland, where such commerce is decided by the legislature, is not one of them. Virginia allows residents to get the milk by owning a stake in a herd. The District, it should be noted, has no cows.
Why raw milk is considered safe in one state yet a health risk across the border is a question for the ages, a dairy variation on current marijuana laws.
However, it is entirely legal in Maryland to sell raw milk for pets, and it always has been. (Which may say something about what Maryland legislators think of our four-legged companions.) This year, the state Department of Agriculture, concerned about an increasing amount of raw milk pet food for sale, has made enforcement a priority, according to a spokeswoman, with inspectors making sure that the products are tested and properly labeled.
Bowen farm owner Sally Fallon Morell and her husband, Geoffrey Morell, produce “Philander’s Pet Milk: Raw Cow’s Milk for Cats and Dogs.” (Philander is the P in P.A. Bowen, one of the farm’s first owners.) They are the first Maryland producers to register with the state to sell a raw milk pet food product. (Two out-of-state producers are also registered to sell in Maryland.) Each quart and half-gallon comes with the state-mandated caution, in emergency-room-red font: “Warning: Not for human consumption. This product has not been pasteurized and may contain harmful bacteria.”
In the service of research, and at the risk of E. coli 0157:H7, Campylobacter and other potentially dreadful stuff, an intrepid dairy correspondent bought a $3.50 quart, the top quarter of the jug swimming in butterfat for the “dog.”
Yes, most dogs don’t drink milk. Then again, we don’t have one.
Raw milk, the color of French vanilla ice cream or a truly flattering shade of paint for the boudoir, has an earthy aroma, which would be grass, as opposed to the less distinct smell of pasteurized milk produced by grain-fed industrialized cows. Well-refrigerated, it will last a week once opened, two weeks if not. The farm sells 24 gallons a week, limit one gallon per family. (Although it’s sold only in quarts and $6 half-gallons.)
Raw milk tastes like, well, cream, though less viscous. (Or so reported the cat.) It’s pleasing, like melted ice cream, and quite sweet. It tastes like a much richer, smoother, more indulgent version of the beverage we’re used to drinking, the cashmere version of milk. And so far, happy taste buds, happy tummy. But if you read the cases on Realrawmilkfacts.com regarding outbreaks in Missouri and California and Connecticut and Utah and Wisconsin (okay, raw goat cheese), well, is it worth the risk?
Raw milk evangelists, and Morell is a national crusader, contend that this is the only real milk, the way nature intended us to imbibe it before corporate agribusiness and pharmaceuticals (antibiotics being prevalent in industrial farming) took over, endangering family farms like this one. “It’s easier to digest. It’s better for the immune system, less allergenic,” Morell says. “It’s protective against tooth decay.”
In 1999, Morell and her husband founded the Weston A. Price Foundation to promote “wise traditions in food, farming and the healing arts,” including the joys of consuming butterfat (“Butter is better!” proclaims one brochure, on which you will hear no argument), lard, organ meat and cod liver oil while denigrating what are viewed as the over-praised virtues of soy. She’s all for cheese and pâté, a cocktail-food diet and decidedly French.
You may be forgiven if you have never heard of Price, an Ohio dentist who died in 1948. He spent a decade studying diets in developing countries and consistently found superior teeth in cultures with butterfat-rich diets. Morell holds degrees in English from Stanford and UCLA, “perfect for becoming a farmer,” her long-held dream. Geoffrey Morell, according to the foundation Web site, is a “naturopath, specializing in the past 20 years in the field commonly called magnetic, intuitive, spiritual or psychic healing.”
To Sally, co-author of “Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook That Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats,” the milk that most of us drink has been pasteurized, processed and politicized beyond the point of flavor and goodness.
“Raw milk has many components that support or create the immune system. Butterfat is something that’s very, very good for you, and it’s important in your milk,” she says. She enjoys an eight-ounce glass every morning. “It’s the best thing for us to drink, especially young children.”
Morell claims that raw milk helps lead to a healthier life and, indirectly, an adolescence less traumatized by taunting: better teeth (liberated from the cage of orthodontics), better eyesight (no more glasses) and reduced allergies (begone, autumnal red nose and persistent sniffing). She says that raw milk rid her of her pollen allergies. She does have comely teeth.
A veritable alphabet soup of agencies and organizations disagree with Morell’s claims. The FDA, the CDC and our favorite, NACCHO (the National Association of County and City Health Officials), counter that drinking raw milk is akin to driving without a seat belt.
Imbibers are asking for it: salmonella, listeria and other pathogens as ghastly as they sound. Pasteurized milk, which is heated to eliminate potentially harmful bacteria, became prevalent in the 20th century to make the breakfast table a far safer place.
“The sale of raw milk is on the rise, and so are raw-milk-related outbreaks,” says Laurie Bucher, chief of Maryland’s Center for Milk and Dairy Product Safety. “Whenever we ask for sound scientific evidence, they can’t produce anything. If you don’t pasteurize milk, it’s a great medium for bacteria to grow.”
Bucher points to a 2012 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that notes that “the risk of outbreaks caused by raw milk is at least 150 times greater than the risk of outbreaks caused by pasteurized milk.”
But, Morell counters, though many farms were once breeding grounds for bacteria, modern practitioners have adopted sanitary measures to avoid such risk.
Then again, argues Bucher, that’s not true for all farms. She cites a 2012 outbreak in Pennsylvania that afflicted 78 people with Campylobacter and sent seven to the hospital.
The Bowen Farmstead, thanks to the help of six full-time workers, is cleaner than many people’s homes. A visit to Morell’s cheese aging rooms requires scrubs, a hair net, white Crocs, hand scrubbing and repeated foot baths to avoid tracking any dirt into each room. The milking stations are hosed down repeatedly; the floor is cleaner than those in many supermarkets.
Every Saturday, visitors tour the farm, where across the gravel path from the opera-named cows resides a cacophony of free-range fowl — geese and ducks, chickens and turkeys, the last with nary a clue as to their upcoming holiday fate. In the front pen, massive Petal, a Tamworth pig, tends to her eight spotted piglets.
On a recent tour, Ishun and Ronny Richards of Fort Washington, Md., with their five children, purchased raw milk, along with a bounty of other store products. “It’s a commitment to eat like this,” Ishun Richards says, “but the kids really love the milk. We’re transitioning off industrialized food sources. Other milk doesn’t taste as good to us.”
Raw milk advocates have been known to drive to other states in search of a fix, though the FDA bans transporting the product across state lines, making it a dairy form of contraband.
Morell is confident, however, that those days are fading. “When we started the foundation, there were only 37 sources of raw milk in the United States, and now there are over 2,000,” she says. “This is the tip of the iceberg. Raw milk is poised to become mainstream.” Her farm has 11 milking cows, which she hopes to increase to 30.
Maryland may restrict her to selling raw milk only for pets, but those pets are going to have plenty.