Raw Milk: The Debate Remains White Hot

Is unpasteurized milk an issue of “food independence” or public safety?

raw milk drop
Bring up raw milk in some circles, and you're going to hear some impassioned opinions. (Photo: Colin Cooke/Getty Images)
Steve Holt writes about food for 'Edible Boston,' 'Boston Magazine,' 'The Boston Globe,' and other publications.

The fight over the type of milk Americans can drink is getting raw. Earlier this week, supporters of unpasteurized milk rallied outside a Minneapolis courthouse where farmer Alvin Schlangen was scheduled to face trial. His crime? Delivering raw milk to more than 100 consumers who requested it.

The protestors, many of them moms whose homes serve as “drop sites” for food-buying clubs that distribute raw milk, say limitations on the sale and interstate transportation of the beverage trample on the rights of consumers to do business with their neighbors and buy what they want. At the Minneapolis rally, supporters signed “a ‘Declaration of Food Independence’” to demonstrate their “non-compliance against what they deem ‘unjust’ regulations,” according to the organization.

Schlangen’s is the latest case in an ongoing battle between advocates for unpasteurized milk and state and federal health officials. One side says it only wants the freedom to consume milk free of “adulteration,” contending that raw milk is actually healthier than pasteurized milk. Dairy farmers, proponents say, should be able to sell directly to consumers without going through another level of processing.

Opponents, including state and national public health officials, say raw milk is unsafe, evidenced by more than 2,000 reported illnesses in the last decade that were linked to the controversial drink. (E. coli, which is killed when milk is heated up during the pasteurization process, is often the presumed culprit.)

Reports of S.W.A.T.-style raids on dairy farms and distributors like Schlangen thought to be peddling raw milk have sent the raw milk market underground, with proponents fearing criminal charges. It has resulted in the creation of an odd criminal industry, profiled by writer Dana Goodyear in the April 30 issue of The New Yorker. “Raw milk,” she wrote, “is the new pot—only harder to get.”

Here’s a roundup of a few other recent happenings in the raw milk debate:

Raw Milk Gaining Traction in the Granite State

A bill currently on the New Hampshire governor’s desk stands to raise the cap on the amount of raw milk backyard dairies can sell from five gallons a day to 20, according to New England Cable News. This would be good news for Kathie Nunley of Amherst, N.H., whose jersey cow Dixie produces up to seven gallons of milk a day. “So we had to offer the extra to our community,” Nunley told NECN. “What we didn’t know is everyone wanted it.”

“The health halo of a nostalgic, if apocryphal, place”

That’s how Peter Smith described the raw milk movement in a post last week for the Smithsonian’s Food and Think blog. He criticized Goodyear and The New Yorker for mentioning only one scientific study of the health benefit of raw milk, which he writes “remains speculative” while “its risks remain high.”

More Sick People in Oregon, Missouri

In Oregon, as many as 21 cases of foodborne illnesses have been linked to a farm outside of Wilsonville, according to OPB News. Included among the ill is a two-year-old who has been hospitalized for more than a month after drinking unpasteurized milk. And in Missouri, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that six of 13 people who were sickened by E. coli last month drank raw milk from the same farm.

The Legal Situation

The sale of raw milk is still legal in 28 states, though restrictions on the amount and method of procurement varies from state to state. The FDA has said that “raw milk, no matter how carefully produced, may be unsafe,” and a federal law prohibits the interstate transport of raw milk. In late March, a federal district judge in Falls Church, VA, dismissed a lawsuit challenging that federal ban. Litigation in other states, including California, has had similarly disappointing outcomes for raw milk advocates.

While the U.S. is fairly strict about raw milk, though, Canada and Australia are even stricter, completely banning the sale of milk directly to the consumer. In contrast, the European Union has no regulations on raw milk sales or consumption, and goes as far as to declare it “safe for human consumption.”

To review the raw milk laws in your state, look at this interactive map.

What do you think? If consumers understand the risks of drinking unpasteurized milk, should dairy farms everywhere be free to sell it?

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