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Raw milk drinkers say benefits outweigh the risks

The Intelligencer

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They like their milk straight from the cow — raw and unpasteurized — and so far as thousands of raw milk drinkers are concerned, the benefits of consuming raw dairy products outweigh the risks of getting sick.

In Bucks and Montgomery counties, there are only four dairies licensed by the state Department of Agriculture to sell raw milk and raw milk products.

Trent Hendricks has the only license to sell raw milk in Montgomery County. He sells about 600 gallons a week to a customer base of about 500 families out of his Hendricks Farms and Dairy on Green Hill Road in Franconia, near Telford.

Hendricks suffered a setback last month when the state suspended his license for about a week while it investigated an outbreak of campylobacteriosis, a gastrointestinal disease that sickened 10 or more people.

The bacterium has many sources, one of which is raw, unpasteurized milk. According to public health officials, all those who suffered the bacterial infection last month had consumed raw milk from Hendricks' dairy.

Hendricks' lab tests showed no presence of the harmful bacteria in milk at his farm. The negative results were confirmed by the Agriculture Department's own tests, and his license was reinstated. And Hendricks remains unconvinced that his farm was the source of the outbreak.

The experience — pardon the pun — left a bad taste in the mouth of the farmer and some of his longtime raw-milk customers.

“I really think the Department of Agriculture should send him a letter of apology,” said Debbie Finkelstein of Havertown.

She has been making the 50-minute-or-so drive up to Hendricks' farm for about 4 1/2 years to buy raw milk. When it started out, she said, it was just for her and her family. Now, she buys raw milk for friends, about 30 families.

It's worth the trip, she says.

Many of the people for whom she buys raw milk, she said, have difficulty digesting pasteurized, homogenized milk.

“It's not that uncommon with older people,” she said. “But they have no problem digesting raw milk. Probably it's because it's alive. It has enzymes, good bacteria, everything needed to digest it.”

Since drinking raw milk, she said, she has enjoyed better overall health.

“Personally, I think pasteurized milk is an adulterated food,” she said.

That's an opinion shared by many raw milk drinkers, including Kimberly Hartke of Reston, Va. She's with the Washington, D.C.-based Weston A. Price Foundation that's “dedicated to restoring nutrient-dense foods” to the human diet.

She personally favors raw milk because she believes the process of mass producing pasteurized, homogenized milk removes vital nutrients that the milk producers then replace.

Hendricks doesn't promote the health claims of his product.

“We don't make claims it's going to do this for you, it's going to do that for you,” he said. “It's not our position to do that. We want to be a very reliable and trustworthy source of premium raw milk. Not all raw milk's the same.”

For that reason, he doesn't feed grain to his cows. They eat grass.

Proponents of raw milk also believe that smaller is better when it comes to producing food.

There's little or no accountability in large-scale food production, Finkelstein said.

“Their focus is on the bottom line,” she said.

But with a small farmer and milk producer like Hendricks, “if something's not right, he's going to take care of it. He cares about his customers and has a direct relationship with them,” she added.

He places extreme emphasis on sanitation to the point that he exceeds many of the minimum standards imposed by regulation, he said.

That's why the suspension of his raw milk license was so personally painful.

“We have put 100 percent of everything on our reputation and developing that reputation,” he said. “And it was slimed, and to this day they have no evidence whatsoever.”

But while many say drinking raw milk has made them feel better, Kelly Jerrom of Perkasie had a different experience. Members of her household became ill with campylobacteriosis in September after consuming milk from Hendricks' dairy.

In a letter to the editor, she described “horrible body aches, headaches, chills followed by drenching hot sweats, excruciating stomach pain and incessant, bloody diarrhea for well over a week.”

Public health officials are unanimous in their belief that the consumption of raw milk is inherently risky. It has been the position of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as far back as 1987 that “raw milk, no matter how carefully produced, may be unsafe.”

Hendricks takes issue with that position.

“The key word, of course, is "may,' ” he said.  “It may not as well.  These are standard scare tactics.”

The FDA goes on to say “the only method proven to be reliable in reducing the level of human pathogens in milk and milk products is by those milk products being produced and processed under sanitary conditions and subsequently being properly pasteurized.”

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture — which will soon require warning labels on raw milk products — and state and county health departments share that view.

Dr. Joseph M. DiMino, director of Montgomery County's Health Department, has likened the consumption of raw milk to “playing Russian roulette” with one's health.

Finkelstein, Hartke and Hendricks acknowledge the risks associated with consuming raw milk, but they don't believe they are any greater than the risks involved in consuming other foods.

“Everything we do involves a certain amount of risk,” Finkelstein said. “If you removed all risk from your life, you wouldn't be alive.

“They don't put warning labels on produce, but people get sick from eating produce,” she said, referring to outbreaks of salmonella infection linked to lettuce, spinach and other vegetables.

Hartke pointed out that it seems there often is “a rush to judgment” on the part of government health officials to focus on raw milk as the culprit in some food-borne illness investigations while overlooking other sources of contamination.

Could competing industries be lobbying against the product to the FDA, then to the state, then to local authorities? It's a scenario Hendricks has considered.

He doesn't see himself as a crusader trying to get the world to drink raw milk. Hendricks sees himself as a simple farmer trying to produce the best product he can for his customers.

“My little farm cannot feed the world, but we can feed a community,” he reflected. “And our goal is, the number of people we can feed, to feed them the best we can, rather than cut down the quality to increase the quantity.”

Lou Sessinger can be contacted at 610-279-6153 or [email protected].
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