Edible Policy - A Raw Deal
By Janet Heimlich | Edible Austin
While on a lunch break, Ruth stands in her tiny kitchen making kefir. The 31-year-old receptionist and hair stylist places a spoonful of kefir starter grains into an empty mayonnaise jar, fills it with whole milk and sets the jar on the counter to ferment. “The warmer it is, the faster it makes up,” she says. “Every once in a while I’ll give it a little jiggle.”
Twenty-four hours from now, Ruth will be enjoying a rich, creamy, yogurt-like drink containing probiotic properties that she says are “good for the gut.” But while making kefir is easy, obtaining the milk used to create it is not. Ruth insists on using only raw milk, which is not available in Texas stores. So Ruth, like many other Austinites, obtains her milk through an underground raw milk group. Every other week, she places her order by e-mail, drives to a secret location, leaves money in a container and removes her raw milk items from a refrigerator.
Why the secrecy? Because selling raw dairy products can land the farmer who sells them in trouble with the law. According to state regulations, dairy farmers must be licensed to sell raw milk products, and may do so only at the dairy site, or they risk losing their licenses. Consumers can legally buy the products, but producers can’t even give away raw milk unless they’re on the farm. These rules often mean a long drive for customers; hence the formation of milk groups like Ruth’s.
Raw milk enthusiasts are committed enough to what they believe to be its health benefits that they will resort to clandestine channels to obtain it. Raw milk contains important enzymes and beneficial bacteria that are destroyed by pasteurization, and according to Randolph Jonsson, a California nutrition consultant and biologist who runs the website raw-milk-facts.com, the lactic acid in raw milk boosts absorption of calcium, phosphorus and iron. Plus, many people with lactose intolerance say they can enjoy raw milk without issue—suggesting that the pasteurization process renders the milk less digestible.
Many who drink raw milk say they not only prefer its taste over that of pasteurized milk, but that it gives them increased energy, improves dental health and reduces allergy symptoms. A 2006 British study analyzing the diet of nearly 5,000 children found that those who drank raw milk had significantly fewer symptoms of asthma, hay fever and eczema. And Lee Dexter, owner of Austin’s White Egret Farm, says that nearly all of the customers who buy her raw goat’s milk have chronic health problems and have responded well to the milk. Dexter, who teaches at Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe, Arizona, adds that one customer with cancer began drinking her goat milk and went from 86 to 101 pounds in just six weeks. “She and her family were ecstatic,” she says.
And the benefits of raw milk over pasteurized appear to begin even before the milk reaches a consumer’s glass. Raw dairies typically maintain smaller herds and raise healthier cows than large-scale conventional dairies. Producers of raw milk tend to avoid growth hormones, antibiotics and soy, which can cause mastitis (inflamation of the udders). And cows at raw dairies often feed primarily on grass, which is far superior to grain or corn for the health of the animal and quality of the milk.
Jonsson notes that feeding grain to a cow weakens the animal’s ability to stave off disease. “As soon as you start introducing grain into the cow’s diet, you start changing the pH of their rumen [first stomach], which then changes the organisms that are able to thrive in there. And that can alter the composition of the milk and change the nature of self-protective mechanisms, so you get milk that is more easily contaminated after it exits the cow.”
By all accounts, healthier cows give healthier milk. And that, along with the other associated health benefits of raw milk, makes it a complete and properly balanced food, according to Jonsson. “You could live on it exclusively if you had to,” he says.
Given all of the beneficial claims associated with raw milk, why does the State of Texas require customers to travel all the way out to farms to buy it?
“The idea is that the customers can see for themselves the facility, the animals, how it’s done and so forth,” explains Jim Fraley, sanitarian and manager of the Milk Group, which regulates milk under the Texas Department of State Health Services. “We want people to see what they’re getting.”
What some fear people might be getting, however, is ill.
“We consider unpasteurized milk to be a potentially hazardous product,” continues Fraley. Hazardous, say health officials, because of food-borne illness outbreaks linked to raw milk products. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have identified 45 such outbreaks that occurred between 1998 and 2005, which led to 1,007 illnesses, 104 hospitalizations and two deaths. To stem such outbreaks, the federal government requires that all milk transported across state lines be pasteurized. The intrastate sale of raw milk products, however, is left to the jurisdiction of individual states.
In the spring of 2009, John Sheehan, director of the FDA’s Division of Dairy & Egg Safety, was quoted in U.S. News & World Report as saying that drinking raw milk is “like playing Russian roulette with your health.” Ominous claims such as this make Sally Fallon livid. Fallon is president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, the organization behind realmilk.com, a leading advocacy website dedicated to broadening the awareness, popularity and sale of raw milk.
“My goal—and I won’t rest until this goal is achieved—is to get people access to clean, raw milk in every state,” Fallon says. According to her, the outbreaks cited by the government were not properly investigated. “It’s easy to cook the books and create a statistical association,” says Fallon. “But when you look at it, there’s no proof that raw milk caused these problems.” What’s more, both Fallon and Dexter cite studies conducted in Europe and India that they say prove the enzymes in clean, raw milk actually kill pathogens—a position that U.S. health officials strongly deny.
Regardless, many raw milk enthusiasts believe the government unfairly singles out raw milk as a pathogen-growing food while other perishable foods that have also made people ill remain on grocery store shelves—like meat, fish, even pasteurized milk. The late 1980s saw the largest outbreak of salmonellosis in the U.S.—affecting nearly 200,000 people. The culprit? Pasteurized milk produced by a single dairy.
Raw milk advocates say health officials are living in the past when, a century ago, dairies operated within city limits and handled livestock and milk under deplorable conditions. In the early 1900s, cows were kept indoors and fed waste grain from whiskey distilleries and milk was sloshed around in open buckets. Not surprisingly, infant mortality soared, making pasteurization necessary. Today, stiff regulations help ensure that dairy animals are healthier and that milk—which is gathered and processed using sterile, stainless steel equipment—is regularly tested. Some raw milk farmers, like Ruth’s supplier, go even further and have private laboratories regularly test their milk.
Austinite and homeopathic veterinarian Will Falconer, who’s been drinking raw milk for the last 30 years, began his medical practice treating cows in Wisconsin. “The hundreds of dairy farmers that I worked for all drank [raw] milk from their bulk tanks,” says Falconer. “I knew from my training that if the cows are in good health and the milk is handled well, it is sterile and free of bacteria and pathogens.”
Fraley admits he can’t justify why customers need to continually make trips to a farm to buy raw milk once they’ve verified that the farmer maintains good dairy practices. After all, the purchase of other raw foods doesn’t require a visit to the processing facility for customer approval, nor would the average dairy farm visitor necessarily be able to spot an unsanitized nozzle, much less a pathogen on a hand or container. And besides, all dairies are subjected to regular inspection by Texas Department of Health experts who are trained to spot such a breach.
Still, Fraley supports the regulatory intent. “If we consider raw milk to be potentially unsafe, we’re going to make sure that the best possible product is available, but we’re going to limit its distribution.” When asked why other states have more lenient regulations than Texas, Fraley simply states “because people want it.”
Texas health officials are starting to realize that more and more consumers here also want access to raw milk. The number of raw milk-licensed farms in Texas has grown from 12 to 36 in just the past year. Today, more than half of U.S. states allow raw milk to be sold, and California, Arizona, New Mexico, Washington, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and South Carolina allow it to be sold in stores.
In addition to the championed health benefits of consuming raw milk products, there’s another factor driving this trend: profit. As prices for pasteurized milk continue to plummet, Texas raw dairies make nearly four times as much money selling raw milk than pasteurized, gallon for gallon. This is partially because of the economic downturn, but also because many dairies selling pasteurized milk are locked into exclusive contracts with big distributors who determine the selling price.
Byron “Toey” Courtney, who owns Jersey Girls Milk Company just outside of Winnsboro, Texas, sells both pasteurized and unpasteurized milk, but is now working toward getting out of the conventional milk business and focusing on selling raw milk exclusively. He notes that people drive for as many as three hours to buy his raw milk products. “That’s our future,” he says.
Currently, Austin-based Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, Slow Food Austin, the Weston A. Price Foundation and countless raw milk supporters are asking the Texas Department of State Health Services, via a mountain of written testimonials, to amend raw milk regulations so that farmers can deliver their products to customers’ homes, farmers markets and other locations. If the state adopts the proposals, it could legalize raw milk groups like Ruth’s and significantly reduce the vehicle miles and time involved in these transactions, along with making raw milk accessible to the elderly or others with physical limitations that preclude their driving long distances.
“The group is not recommending any changes to the extensive regulations placed on producers that address health and safety concerns,” says Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance’s Executive Director, Judith McGeary. “Moreover, under our proposal, the sales would remain direct farm-to-consumer (i.e. no wholesale sales), and raw dairy would not be available in grocery stores for the general public. The direct farm-to-consumer nature of the transactions continues to ensure that raw dairy is only available to those who intentionally seek it out and that they know its source.”
“For a family farm, direct farm-to-consumer sales of raw milk can mean the difference between losing money and making a reasonable income,” says McGeary. She adds that “Every dollar a farm earns on the sale of raw milk equates to $5-$7 for the local community. By promoting local sales, raw milk can significantly benefit rural economies.”
Jonsson, along with many raw milk proponents, believes that consumers should be allowed to decide for themselves whether to drink raw or pasteurized milk. He points out that people have been drinking raw milk for centuries, well before the advent of refrigeration. “If raw milk is as bad as the FDA says,” he notes, “we wouldn't have made it past the Stone Age.”