Raw deal?

The words “raw milk” are likely to cause a shudder in people working in the public-health arena. Mention the stuff and they’ll sit you down and lecture you on typhoid fever, salmonella, tuberculosis and listeria, several of the deadly pathogens that have historically been linked to unpasteurized milk.

Some like it raw: Advocates would like to see consumer choice rule when it comes to unpasteurized milk from from goats, cows, sheep etc.

And while raw milk has been a staple of farmhouse diets since time immemorial, federal law has prohibited its sale across state lines since 1987. In the wake of disease outbreaks, most states—beginning with Michigan in 1948—made pasteurization of all retail milk mandatory, drawing on the work of health crusaders dating back to the 1880s. Raw milk is still legal in a dozen states, however, including South Carolina.

Until a few years ago, North Carolina ranked among those holdouts. But in 2004, the N.C. General Assembly closed the last loophole that had kept raw milk on the market here. Called “cow shares,” the agreement had allowed consumers to buy a “share” of a dairy animal—including the milk it produces. The “share,” supporters say, was a face-to-face covenant between farmer and the consumer—a key consideration in ensuring the product’s safety, they maintain.

“The [raw milk] consumer is a very different consumer,” says Cynthia Sharpe, who owns Oak Moon Creamery in Mitchell County. “This is a group of people who, when the government tells them something, doesn’t believe it. These people have done their research. They know what’s true and what’s false when it comes to the milk they drink.”

Despite the ban, demand for raw milk is rising here and elsewhere on account of its purported health benefits. People who drink it cite the vital enzymes it’s said to contain and its allegedly superior nutritive value. Raw milk, they’ll tell you, can help manage certain allergies and digestive problems. Others believe it’s beneficial for autistic children and boosts the immune systems of those who drink it.

Sharpe, who was recently authorized by the state to produce cheese from her goats’ milk, says she sold raw milk on only one occasion some years ago, to a man from Winston-Salem whose child was suffering from a chronic disease. “I sold 10 gallons,” she said. “He was desperate to get it for this child. But geographically it didn’t make sense. I was too far away, and I told him there were people closer who had it.”

Raw-milk proponents, meanwhile, are making headway in their fight to repeal the state’s ban. Later this month, state Sen. Kay Hagan of Greensboro is expected to introduce legislation seeking to overturn S948, the 2004 law that outlawed cow shares.

Greensboro resident Ruth Ann Foster has been a key player in the push to overturn the ban. A nurse by training, Foster says “motherhood” got her interested in raw milk.

“With this bill, we’re just trying to get our cow shares back,” says Foster. The arrangement, she maintains, benefits both consumers and farmers. Consumers can get “a more wholesome, natural product,” and farmers can get more for their milk than they do on the market. Hagan’s bill has the support of a loose network of in-state consumers and small farmers, as well as the greater raw-milk community. Among the latter supporters is the Weston A. Price Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that promotes the availability of “nutrient-dense whole foods,” including unpasteurized dairy. The group manages www.realmilk.com , an online clearinghouse for information about the forbidden food.

Between 1998 and May 2005, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta identified 45 outbreaks of food-borne illness that implicated unpasteurized milk or cheese made from it. These outbreaks accounted for 1,007 illnesses, 104 hospitalizations and two deaths, based on information in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report for the week of March 2, 2007. The actual number of illnesses was almost certainly higher, says the agency, because not all cases are recognized and reported.

Raw milk—whether from cows, goats or sheep—has not been pasteurized to kill any bacteria it may contain, including potentially harmful ones. The CDC and other health organizations say that children, pregnant women, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems are particularly vulnerable to the pathogens that can be passed along in raw milk.

The push to ban milk shares in North Carolina came on the heels of a 2000 outbreak of listeriosis that was attributed to cheese made from raw milk. Eleven of the infected were pregnant women, and all of them suffered consequences: Five had stillbirths, three had premature deliveries, and three others gave birth to infected newborns.

“That was a huge outbreak for that area,” says Joe Reardon, director of the Food and Drug Protection Division of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “I understand that there are passionate people on either side of this issue,” Reardon says. “But raw milk just represents an undue risk, especially to pregnant women, children and the elderly.”

Nonetheless, believers in raw milk’s purported health benefits chafe at the cost and difficulty of obtaining it. Sharpe, for instance, notes that a friend of hers from the state’s Triad region says “she could go to a street corner and get crack more easily—and cheaper—than she could get raw milk.”

That could change soon, however. Demand is rising, says Sharpe, and it’s only a matter of time before the government starts listening.

“People need it, they want it, and they’re going to get it,” she predicts.

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10 thoughts on “Raw deal?

  1. C.Sharpe

    Thought I’d better tie up a loose end or two. I have only sold 10 gallons of milk through the realmilk.com site. Other than that, I only sell milk for people to soak the spaghetti stains out of their Tupperware. Also, I don’t really think that you can buy crack cheaper than raw milk, but I’ve never actually bought crack. Come to think of it, I’ve never actually bought raw milk either; always had some from my own farm.

  2. Susan

    It is truely a shame that small dairy farmers dump hundreds of gallons of wholesome food on the ground while people all around are going hungry. In the context of people (including pregnant women) hurt by the consumption of alcohol, tobacco, and junk food (which are all legal to sell), raw milk does not appear to be much of a threat.
    No one would dispute that dairy products handled improperly can be a dangerous caldron for pathogens. Pasteurazation has allowed industrial farms to be slack in sanitation and to use the milk from sick animals, and still have a product that is “safe”. If a consumer wants to take the effort to investigate a farm and concludes that the animals are healthy, the milking is careful, and the farmer is honest, why should the government deny that consumer of the benefit of being responsible for his own health?

  3. YJC

    While I am really glad to see more information made available to the public on local farmers and the importance to support them. I think it would benefit the public equally as much, if additional research was conducted. The “outbreak” that occurred in 2000, was as a result of several Hispanic women making cheese from raw milk obtained from a commerical cow dairy, where their husbands worked. As noted in the CDC report on this case, it was decided that the bacteria did not come from the cheese making itself, nor did it come from the cows, but from the enviroment of the commerical farm itself. To view the complete report visit http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5026a3.htm.
    This in no way reflects on the small dairy farmer, that actually milks their animals twice a day, that knows and understands the health and cleaniness of their animals and equipment. This also does not reflect on those same dairy farmers that would not be milking for commerical production, but would be involved in cow/goat shares. It is the same as comparing apples to oranges, and common sense is often needed.

  4. S Williams

    Hear! Hear! for YJC. It seems someone is always ready to jump up and report how terrible an outbreak is but nobody ever seems interested enough to dig a little deeper to find and report the true cause of it which in this case was not the milk but the improper handling of it. I grew up drinking fresh, raw cow’s milk and I still drink fresh, raw milk only now it’s from my goats. My entire family has consumed raw dairy at some point and many still do. Every neighbor we had when I was growing up got their milk from Aunt Bethany’s cow. Never in 52 years have I personally known anyone to get ill from raw dairy. I think my Uncle Alfred summed up the quality of mass produced milk when he looked at his glass one evening at supper, sighed and said “I haven’t had a decent glass of buttermilk since I started a dairy”.

  5. Kent Priestley

    It’s good to see this sort of dialogue here. Thanks for posting your opinions about raw milk, cow shares, etc. at the Xpress website.

    SH — I tried your link to the Independent story and came up short. If you visit the Xpress blogs, you’ll notice that I posted the link there this morning.

    Regarding that story: While the reportage is certainly in-depth and much close to comprehensive, it should also be noted that it is by nature an advocacy story since the writer is, by her own admission, a raw milk consumer.

  6. S Williams

    I didn’t come away from the Independent Weekly article thinking the author was a die hard raw milk consumer. It sounded to me like she had jumped through the government enforced hoops people who choose to drink raw milk have to deal with regularly in order to research the process. I will admit the article felt like it leaned a bit toward my way of thinking but very seldom does an article state not only what the FDA, CDC, etc. preach but instead gave more than token time to the raw milk advocate’s side of the story.

    I promise you I am in no sense of the term a health conscious person. My interest in this whole thing is based on the fact that I should be the one to decide what I want to eat and where it comes from. Just for the sake of argument, do you think for one moment if 25 people got sick from eating raw eggs and a situation very similar to the Winston Salem cheese incident happened, North Carolina would suddenly pass a law declaring all eggs in the cartons at the grocery store will now be boiled?

  7. Kent Priestley

    As Ruth Ann Foster explained to me in a phone conversation, the original perception of raw milk as a public health menace dates to the end of the 19th century, when milk from a confinement dairy herd in New York led to a typhoid fever outbreak.

    Without a doubt our national and state food system — then as now — is prone to failure. Only now, the stakes are considerably higher. As you rightly pointed out, more people have probably been affected by salmonella in raw eggs or pernicious e. coli in beef or hepatitis on greens than anything raw milk might carry with it.

    It seems to me (and this is Kent Priestley the consumer talking, not the reporter), that the cow shares system strikes a welcome balance between a rational food system — based on individual choice and, on the other side, responsible farming — and a legitimate concern for public health. Again, the responsibility falls squarely on the consumer, who seeks this product out.

    For my part, I’d be much more inclined to trust milk from a small, pastured herd than that from confined cows with chronic mastitis and ulcerated rumens. But by design or default, our food production system is charged with providing low-cost food to millions of consumers, with profits moving upward and off the farm. The system may be broken, but for better or worse it’s what most Americans depend on for their daily bread.

    How do we make it better? Any thoughts welcome.

  8. silverman

    “she could go to a street corner and get crack more easily—and cheaper—than she could get raw milk”

    i heard carl mumpower is going to start going to the farmers market with the secret password and buy this raw milk, just to show the APD what a problem it is.

  9. C.Sharpe

    I agree with KP that the share system is a good alternative. The most progressive thing the state could do concerning raw milk sales in NC is to legalize limited from-the-farm sales with some sort of reasonable set of regs tailored to small farmers that would include free testing of the animals and milk, practical assistance for farmstead dairy set-up, equipment loan/grant programs to assist small hometown creameries to once more become a component of our communities.
    I believe that the main reason our state authorities are so rabid about what they consider to be the dangers of unpasteurized milk is that this position was taught as doctrine and is all they know. The fact that many will admit they were raised on raw milk as children but wouldn’t touch it today, consider it as “deadly as a cocked gun” as one official told me, brings me to two conclusions: 1) this is a dogmatic position among our agricultural leaders, with the influence of the milk lobby helping them toe a line, and 2) they know that raw milk from the contemporary massive dairy “farms” producing for the mainstream milk market can carry real dangers caused by the unnatural, intensive, industrial practices used.

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