The growing debate over raw milk

IN THE RAW: Dairy farmer Kevin Lane milks cows on his Marshall farm with a claw bucket milker machine. Lane and his wife, Kate, are among local farmers who support legalized herd shares — agreements that allow consumers to buy an interest in a dairy animal to receive access to its milk. Photo by Kate Lane

The continuing quest for food that is natural, unprocessed and local seems to be getting easier every day. Farmers markets proliferate, supermarket shelves are filled with foods containing fewer additives and preservatives. Yet major hurdles still exist for one particular product that’s in increasingly high demand these days: raw milk.

Enthusiasts say milk that hasn’t been pasteurized or treated in any way contains more nutrients and other valuable components; opponents (including the federal government) say it may contain dangerous disease-causing germs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website, “Raw milk and products made from it can pose severe health risks, including death.”

After years of study, the Food and Drug Administration banned interstate sales of raw milk for human consumption in 1987. Yet today, raw milk is available in some form in more than half the states, though it’s currently illegal to purchase it for human consumption in North Carolina.

“I call it the new moonshine,” says state Rep. John Ager. “Demand is high; it’s almost a kind of contraband.”

Ager is a primary sponsor of a bill introduced in the House in late February that would establish statewide standards for the production of raw milk for human consumption. The Small Dairy Sustainability Act (H.B. 103) would give small-scale dairy farmers a potentially lucrative income stream while addressing the preferences of consumers who are driving the demand for raw milk.

“I’m thinking of it from the point of view of small farmers who want to find an income with just a small number of cows and sell to their neighbors,” says Ager. He also believes in the product’s potential benefits. “I’m an old dairyman,” he says, adding, “I raised my family on raw milk.”

Share and share alike

Ager also helped add a provision to North Carolina’s Farm Act of 2018 that ended a 14-year ban on “herd shares” — contractual farm agreements that allow individuals to buy an interest in a dairy animal. The buyer pays a fee to the farm that feeds, houses and cares for the animal and, in return, gains access to a portion of the unprocessed milk produced. The ban was instituted to prevent raw milk distribution.

Since the Farm Act’s passage last June, herd shares have been the preferred avenue for buying and selling unpasteurized milk. In North Carolina, farmers are allowed to market raw milk only as pet food, a legal gray area that enables consumers to get around the prohibition against human consumption. Because participants in herd share agreements are technically part owners of the animal, however, they’re able to obtain its untreated milk without having to navigate any murky legal terrain.

Some local dairy farmers say the herd share law provides a crucial income stream while fostering a more personal relationship with their customers. “I believe that people should buy raw milk directly from farmers and not from the grocery store,” says Madison County resident and farmer Kate Lane. “Herd shares are important in that aspect,” stresses Lane, who co-owns Homemade in Marshall with her husband, Kevin.

Who really benefits?

Despite a growing demand for the product, however, both herd shares and the broader raw milk market face an uncertain future in North Carolina.

H.B. 103 seeks to protect the legality of raw milk and the small farms that produce it, but critics have doubts about the production standards the law would establish. “Even though this bill supports farms like us, it would be really difficult to adhere to those regulations. It makes me wonder who this is really going to benefit and who is it not going to benefit,” Lane observes.

But even putting those concerns aside, Ager isn’t optimistic about the bill’s future. “We’re facing a lot of opposition from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture,” he notes, adding, “I’m really going to be surprised if this bill moves forward. Ultimately, we’re just trying to get it out there and start the conversation.”

Indeed, the Department of Agriculture officially opposes any legal channel for selling raw milk, maintaining that the potential health risks involved could harm the state’s dairy industry as a whole. “We believe the proclaimed ‘economic benefit’ of a few people does not outweigh the considerable public health risks backed by science,” Heather Overton, the department’s assistant director of public affairs, wrote in an email to Xpress.

“Before pasteurization became widespread, raw milk outbreaks accounted for 25 percent of all foodborne illnesses. We are particularly concerned about the impact of raw milk that may be fed to children. The 2018 outbreak in Tennessee that sickened a dozen children and left one child with permanent brain damage is a clear example of the potential impact,” wrote Overton.

The department also seems intent on repealing the current herd share law. “I won’t have the blood on my hands of the kids getting sickened by misinformation,” Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler declared at the N.C. Dairy Conference in February, according to an audio recording obtained by Xpress. “So we’re going to go after them,” he continued. “We’re going to try and repeal the cow share law. There’s no amount of testing in the world that I can stand behind and tell somebody that raw milk is not harmful if you drink it.”

To that end, H.B. 385, which would reinstate the ban on herd shares, was filed on March 19. The bill passed a first reading and was referred to the Committee on Rules, Calendar and Operations of the House.

Food safety or market manipulation?

“They do have some legitimate concerns,” Ager concedes. “If we legalize raw milk and there’s a problem and someone gets sick, it could wipe out a whole farm. It would really hurt the dairy industry as well, which is already struggling as it is.” Nonetheless, he believes people should be able to make that choice for themselves.

Meanwhile, other advocates dispute the whole idea that raw milk is dangerous, claiming that it’s merely a ploy by large farms to eliminate competition.

“They’re trying to make it out that it’s dangerous, but the truth is that the co-ops and the big agricultural producers just want to keep raw milk out of the market,” says Ernest Ramsey, who co-owns Jewel Hill Farms in Marshall with his wife, Kimberly. “They just want everything to go to these big industrial farms, and it’s killing the small farmers,” he asserts. “Within the last 12 years, we’ve lost two-thirds of the dairy farms in North Carolina to these large, 35,000-cow dairy operations in the Midwest.”

At this point, it appears that the debate over raw milk in North Carolina is only beginning. But with consumer demand continuing to grow, it remains to be seen whether lawmakers can agree on legislation that addresses the needs of both farmers and consumers while maintaining public safety.



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9 thoughts on “The growing debate over raw milk

  1. Richard B.

    There is, or should be, no debate. The risk of drinking raw milk increases drastically with children, teenagers, and pregnant women, as well as those with compromised immune systems. Listeria, which can bring on meningitis, is a major concern. As recently as the early 20th Century, milk accounted for one quarter of all food borne illnesses. Currently only 3 people on average die every year in the U. S. from milk related illnesses, thanks to Louis Pasteur’s research and processes developed over 150 years ago.
    If folks want to put themselves at risk by drinking raw milk, I am opposed to paying for their emergency room visits and medical costs incurred.
    If they agree to sign a waiver, that they are putting themselves at risk with full knowledge of the consequences, and there will be no medical expenses
    passed on to tax payers, then go for it.

  2. think critically

    “There’s no reason to drink cow’s milk at any time in your life. It was designed for calves, not humans, and we should all stop drinking it today.”

    -Dr. Frank A. Oski, Former Director of Pediatrics, Johns Hopkins University, and author of “Don’t Drink Your Milk!, Frightening Medical Facts About the World’s Most Overrated Nutrient.”

  3. Jason W

    Drinking other mammals milk has been practiced for millennia.
    Dr. Oski was speaking in the 70’s when almost 75% of American babies were nursed on commercial formula.
    Although I can’t speak for factory farming, I feel that the dairy cows on small farms, as the ones talked about in this article, are treated well, and experience little or no pain when being milked. It can actually be painful to the cow if it isn’t milked, as milk builds up in the udder, causing extreme pressure.

  4. think critically

    What a silly dismissal of the facts. Dr. Oski’s work is not only relevant today, more and more nutritional scientists agree that milk is bad for you.

    And to make it sound like you are doing a cow a favor when you milk her is silly. Cows only produce milk after they deliver a baby, just like humans. They only “need” to be milked by humans because their baby has been torn from them so that humans can steal and sell the milk. The baby, if a boy, is usually raised for veal. If a girl, she will likely follow in the hoofsteps of her mother, being impregnated and then deprived of her children.

    The composition of milk varies widely from animal to animal, providing the perfect first food for the young of that species. A seal’s milk is extraordinarily fatty (50 per cent fat) so that seal pups can grow very quickly, depositing a thick layer of blubber that will protect them from the cold and sustain them as they learn to hunt for themselves. Just as we are different from seals, we are not exactly the same as cows either! It won’t surprise you, then, that cows’ milk is very different from human milk – which is why we mustn’t give ordinary cows’ milk, condensed milk, dried or evaporated milk to a child under the age of one. If a human baby is given cows’ milk, it has to be changed into a formula that attempts to replicate human milk. Do you think that milk is ideal for humans? Cows’ milk is meant to help a calf grow very rapidly, gaining as much as 1,000 pounds in less than two years. We, on the other hand, take about 18 years to reach adult weigh. So, we have very different rates of growth and while cow’s milk and human milk contain a similar percentage of water, the relative amounts of fat, carbohydrate, protein, vitamins and minerals vary widely. Cows’ milk is ideal for baby cows, but not for humans.

    • Jason W

      But if necessary cow, donkey, goat, sheep or even dog milk can work for human nourishment. There are examples of this throughout written human history.

  5. think critically

    Sure, I agree, if necessary. And, to take it to an extreme, cannibalism has also been practiced, when “necessary.” But today we waste precious resources feeding plant food to cows so that we can drink and eat their mammary secretions, when we can eat plants directly. It is healthier to do so, not to mention much easier on the environment, too. And also the humane thing to do.
    Just take a step back and think about what a bizarre thing it is to drink the milk of another species, or to turn it into cheese, etc. Humans are designed to drink human milk, and only in infancy. No other species drinks the milk of another, except when we foist it upon them, like when we give cows’ milk to cats.

  6. Big Al

    I have always found hilarious that the same pseudo-intellectual do-gooders who attacked tobacco and now attack consumption of meat and dairy also promote recreational use of cannabis in spite of new evidence of psychiatric health hazards.

    The one thing these two causes have in common is that they make the promoters feel good about themselves, cannibis because it is chemically intoxicating, and food puritanism because it is self-righteous and creates a false sense of moral and ethical superiority.

    I MIGHT consider swearing off my bacon cheeseburger, but not until the pot heads stop preaching to me about the “benefits” of legal marijuana.

  7. think critically

    Funny that you should make the analogy to tobacco. Here is an article, “Meat is the New Tobacco”

    I am not a cannabis promoter or user, just someone who is interested in science and critical thinking. I smoked cigarettes for decades, knowing full well that it was a ridiculously harmful thing to do. Likewise for eating animal products. We have an amazing ability to rationalize our behavior and ignore science when we don’t like the conclusions reached.

    “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
    George Orwell

  8. Richard B.

    Disappointing that most of the comments above do not at all address or respond to the content of the article itself. Nearly every time that the word MILK was mentioned, it was preceded by the word RAW. The debate was not about “drinking milk”, it was about drinking RAW milk.
    Seems the rest of us are to assume that those responding above debating the merits of milk, have no thoughts or concerns about consuming RAW milk.

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