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.