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Raw milk debate rekindling in Missouri legislature

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JEFFERSON CITY — The cow wandered into the milking parlor and into one of the two stalls available, lured by the alfalfa pellets filling the trough. Her calf, matching her brown-and-white coat, followed slowly behind.

As Eric Vimont prepped the cow to be milked, he extolled the calf's favorable traits. The calf proceeded to investigate his new surroundings, and Vimont's son, Jake, came up to pet him and give him a scratch behind the ear, much like a pet dog.

Vimont owns and operates Pasture Nectar Farm, which sells dairy products from pasture-raised animals, out of Mount Vernon. He also sells beef, eggs and other seasonal products such as vegetables. The heart of the operation, however, is the production of raw — unpasteurized and nonhomogenized — milk.

"We tend to do a few other things over time, but (raw milk) will always be our centerpiece, and nothing else can take away from this," Vimont said. "If anything makes it so we can't produce the quality of milk that we do today, then we won't do it."

Pasture Nectar Farm is small, consisting of the farmhouse and three other buildings surrounded by grazing cattle. It is staffed by Vimont, his wife and their two children.

"(Raw milk is) one of the few things a family can do in small production," Vimont said.

Milking takes place in a small three-room building. The first room holds a large cooler, a table laden with bottles and a silver cylindrical dispenser into which the milk flows. To the left is storage and straight forward is the parlor. It's in this last room — with two stall-like portions — that the cows are milked.

The Vimont family has been producing raw milk for sale since November 2006. They started with the sale of grass-fed beef and thought that raw milk was the "next natural step."

During pasteurization, milk is heated to a specific temperature for a certain length of time to ensure that harmful organisms and bacteria are killed. It is named after Louis Pasteur, a French chemist and microbiologist from the 19th century. He provided conclusive evidence for germ theory, which states that microorganisms are the cause of many diseases, and developed the process of pasteurization to stop milk and wine from causing diseases.

Homogenization is a process that makes milk uniform in texture by breaking up the fat into smaller particles that are more evenly distributed throughout the milk. It is through this process that milk achieves different fat percentages, such as 1 percent, 2 percent or whole milk.

"Raw milk just comes straight out of a cow, and it's cooled down," said Chris Davis, a dairy expert at MU's Southwest Research Center farm. "Nothing is added to it; nothing is taken away from it. It hasn't been heated; it hasn't been homogenized. It's milk in its pure form."

Raw milk has increased in popularity as more consumers choose organic products.

Vimont said those making this choice are "not rabid environmentalists."

He said it's about providing healthy food for his children and taking care of the land for the next generation. For example, he said, rotation grazing, a method they practice, is better for the soil.

"I think that raw milk stands on three legs," Vimont said. "It's the kind of wheat the cows get, and in our case, that's grass only and the bags there are alfalfa pellets, but it's not grain. The second thing is how clean we keep the parlor, the equipment and how clean we milk the cows. And the third thing is getting that milk into bottles and cooled very quickly. And if you do those three things, you'll have the premium quality of milk. Our milk regularly lasts six weeks. There's no store-bought milk that will ever do that."

Within the law

Vimont was one of seven farmers to receive violation notices from the State Milk Board last year for selling raw milk out of their homes.

Missouri law requires dairy producers to be inspected, certified and licensed by the board if they wish to sell their products through a third party such as a grocery store or at an event such as a farmers market.

The board, which consists of representatives from Health Departments around the state, meets several times a year to discuss and review issues concerning the dairy industry, such as grading or inspections.

The Vimonts, however, only sell their milk directly from the farm or through delivery.

According to an exception in the law designed to give consumers the ability to buy raw milk, "an individual may purchase and have delivered to him for his own use raw milk or cream from a farm."

After further review of the Vimonts' case and other similar cases, the board sent an apology letter, withdrawing its cease-and-desist order.

The violation notices were the inspiration for a bill sponsored by Rep. Belinda Harris, D-Hillsboro, that would clarify the state's position on the sale of raw milk.

"It all started from farmers. ... Their main purpose isn't necessarily dairy, but they have a dairy cow for their own use," Harris said. "And a dairy cow produces a lot of milk. ... It's like six gallons a day, 42 gallons a week; that's a lot of milk. And usually the neighbors and friends and different ones that know about your raw milk, and you can sell it to them. And in the state's statutes, it does state that it is legal to sell milk from the farm and take it and deliver it or someone can come to the farm, and that's totally legal."

The bill did not pass last year.

"It never even got a committee hearing because they felt that the concerns had been taken care of," Harris said. "The state board made an apology, and they felt that was sufficient. But then right after we ended session, the day after we ended session, the Health Department sent out this notice about how dangerous raw milk is, and I thought, well, what's this about?"

Health concerns

Raw milk and related health concerns have been brought up several times. On May 19, 2008, the Missouri Health Department warned that raw milk is not necessarily better for children because of a hemolytic uremic syndrome case in an infant who had consumed raw goat's milk.

During a couple of food contamination outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli, the Missouri Health Department said one can take certain preventative measures to avoid contracting these diseases, which includes not drinking raw milk.

Pasteurized milk is less likely to contain harmful bacteria because the heating process kills bacteria.

According to the Food and Drug Administration's Web site, "these harmful bacteria can seriously affect the health of anyone who drinks raw milk or eats foods made from raw milk. However, the bacteria in raw milk can be especially dangerous to pregnant women, children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has connected 45 outbreaks, from 1998 to 2005, of food-borne disease — including E. coli, campylobacter jejuni, listeria and other serious illnesses — to raw milk or to cheese made with unpasteurized milk. More than 1,000 people became ill, 104 were hospitalized and two died, according to the CDC.

Harris has submitted a new version of the bill this legislative session. Besides clarifying current raw milk policy, the bill would allow the sale of unlicensed raw milk at farmers markets. It would also extend to other dairy products such as butter and yogurt.

"The Missouri law, the interpretation is you can still buy raw milk from a farm, but, of course, it would be uninspected," said Karen Prescott, the administrator of environmental services and a board representative for the Springfield-Greene County Health Department. "Personally, I would not buy it. I would not serve it to my children. I think there are too many health concerns."

Vimont said because he is not licensed, the farm is not inspected by the state.

"But we're inspected by our customers every day, and we invite our customers to come out anytime they want," Vimont said. "We're more carefully inspected than any commercial dairy because our customers are here every day."

'Freshest you can get'

Davis said there is this difference between small raw milk operations such as the Vimonts' and large mass production for grocery stores that know their product is going to undergo pasteurization.

"A small dairy that's going to sell raw milk — their clientele is their livelihood, and so they're going to do everything they can to make sure that that product is absolutely clean and free of contaminates," Davis said. "Whereas when you get to these larger dairies, they're going to be a little less conscientious of that."

Harris agreed and said buying local might be safer because customers know who they're buying from.

"These local operations still have the county health department that can come in, and, if someone has a complaint or something, the county health department has the ability to still come into a regular farm and see if the milk is being handled right," Harris said. "But generally, if the customers are satisfied with the raw milk, the farmer keeps selling the raw milk without having to go through a big permitting process.

"Because milk that's sold in a grocery store can be coming from anywhere. It could be coming from California and shipped into Missouri, and so you do need a little bit more scrutiny on how the milk is processed. It takes longer for milk to get to a grocery store because it's being shipped, it's going through handling, it's going through different processing. And so the milk is older, and it needs that extra protection of pasteurizing and all that they do to ensure the safety of the milk, but when it comes from the farm, that's the freshest you can get. It's either been milked that day or the day before."

David Kineaid, one of Vimont's customers, said he chose to switch to raw milk for the health benefits.

"My wife had been doing a lot of research into some more wholesome eating, particularly with children," Kineaid said. "We want to provide our children with the most nutritious food possible."

He drives half an hour north from Aurora to buy the milk, which is more for Pasture Nectar Farm. Their farthest-driving customer comes from northern Arkansas.

The majority of the Vimonts' customers are from the Mount Vernon and Springfield areas.

"We don't market our milk very far from here," Vimont said. "We're a small local business. We would really prefer all our customers come from the local area."

Like other organic products, raw milk is seen by some as healthier because some say pasteurization destroys nutrients and the enzymes necessary to absorb calcium while killing bacteria.

While pasteurization does destroy some nutrients and enzymes, opponents of raw milk say the difference in levels is minimal, according to an article from the September-October 2004 issue of FDA Consumer magazine.

Davis said the results of these studies vary on whose report one reads.

"There's a lot of literature out there that says there is very little difference, and then there are some that say, that swear that raw milk is healthier for you," Davis said. "It's who you listen to. You can go on the Internet and find arguments both ways."

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