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baltimoresun.com

Regulators rue raw milk vogue

Despite claims of healthfulness, disease risks abound

By Stephen J. Hedges

April 27, 2008

WASHINGTON

Mark McAfee just might be the most closely watched farmer in America.

His Organic Pastures dairy farm in Fresno, Calif., is the subject of a federal grand jury investigation and near-constant scrutiny by the Food and Drug Administration and California health officials. Lawyers have slapped him with lawsuits seeking damages for food-borne illnesses.

Sale of cream from his 250-cow milking operation was suspended briefly last month by state officials citing health concerns - claims McAfee says are bogus. Last week he testified before the California Legislature about a state law that could undermine his livelihood.

What's the source of all this suspicion? Milk, or rather what's known as raw milk, milk that isn't pasteurized.

Pasteurization is the heating process that kills dangerous bacteria.

Raw milk is growing in popularity, milk producers say. Devotees believe pasteurization kills healthy enzymes, vitamins and proteins that boost energy and immune systems and aid digestion.

"I have been pushing for this for a long time," said Sally Fallon, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation in Washington, which focuses on nutrition issues and promotes raw milk.

"We've been pointing out the health benefits, so we have a growing number of people who are using raw milk now, finding it extremely helpful with their own health problems and their children's health problems."

It's legal to buy raw milk in 28 states, according to the foundation. Some other states, the foundation says, allow "cow share" programs and sales of milk for animal consumption, spreading the raw milk supply for consumers.

The FDA and a host of state and public-health food safety officials say the raw milk fad is nonsense and dangerous.

"Raw milk is inherently dangerous, and it should not be consumed by anyone at any time for any reason," said John Sheehan, director of the FDA's Office of Plant and Dairy Foods. "There is absolutely nothing to the claims that it is this magical, mystical elixir that cures all."

Health officials argue that raw milk can carry such dangerous pathogens as E. coli, Listeria, salmonella and campylobacter - bugs that are killed by pasteurization.

But McAfee, perhaps raw milk's most outspoken producer, says the FDA and many state health agencies are ignoring science that suggests that unpasteurized products contain healthy ingredients.

Federal law prohibits the interstate sale of milk. So some milk drinkers cart gallons of the stuff across state lines in violation of federal law.

In other states, such as California, store sales are legal. McAfee said his brand is carried in 310 stores.

To expand sales nationally, McAfee uses an FDA loophole that allows interstate raw milk sales if the milk is labeled as pet food. A "legal note" on his Organic Pastures Web site tells customers that milk will be shipped labeled as pet food.

Raw milk's surging popularity presents a challenge to state and federal food regulators, who are armed with a patchwork of laws to either monitor or prevent its sale. Many state and federal health officials argue that raw milk's rise has brought a rise in related food-borne illnesses.

Stephen J. Hedges writes for the Chicago Tribune.

Copyright © 2008, The Baltimore Sun