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.
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.