Raw Milk Sales Could Reinvigorate U.S. Dairy Farms
By Hillary Brenhouse | The New York Times
FoodsRaw milk for sale at Kimberton Whole Foods, a health food store chain in Pennsylvania that promotes organic farming methods. The store is required to post an advisory label on the refrigerator door warning customers of the potential health risks associated with consuming certain raw foods.
For four generations the Gibbs family milked cattle on their farm in a fertile valley in Allamuchy Township, New Jersey. Facing dismally low milk prices, Frank Gibbs and his sons, Brant and Keith, struggled this year to continue the tradition. But a month ago, they sold off their entire herd of nearly 200 cows.
They are not the only ones. There are now fewer than 100 New Jersey dairy farms, less than a third of the number 10 years ago.
One potential solution had eluded them, because the sale of higher-priced “raw,” or unpasteurized, milk is illegal in their state.
In September, the uniform price paid to a New Jersey farmer for pasteurized milk was $1.11 per gallon, or roughly four liters. That is 66 cents less than in July of last year.
According to the Weston A. Price Foundation, a Washington-based advocacy group for organic foods, dairy farmers who sell unpasteurized milk directly to the customer currently command $5 to $7 per gallon.
“There’s no middleman, and people are willing to pay a premium for raw milk and related products,” said Sally Fallon Morell, president of the foundation. “As the dairy crisis gets worse, raw is becoming more and more attractive.”
The market is relatively small in the United States because the Food and Drug Administration banned the interstate sale of raw milk 22 years ago. The agency calls unpasteurized milk and related products “inherently dangerous,” warning that they could contain a host of potentially lethal pathogens, including salmonella, E. coli and listeria.
But individual states regulate how unpasteurized milk is produced, bought and sold within their borders, and just over half allow its sale in some form.
Now, the weak market for pasteurized milk and its effect on dairy farmers is motivating some states to reconsider their ban.
Ms. Fallon Morell estimates that as many as one million people in the United States regularly consume unpasteurized milk and that the number is “rising very quickly,” reflecting trends toward organic and locally produced food diets.
In Pennsylvania, 122 dairy farms hold raw milk permits, the most of any state. The number has tripled over the last three years, and state officials say another 40 permits are pending.
Kimberton Whole Foods, a Pennsylvania health food store, gets in five shipments — a total of about 240 gallons — of raw milk a week from two dairy producers and is about to enlist a third. Terry Brett, the store’s owner, said that its sales of unpasteurized milk have doubled over the last five years. Pennsylvania is one of just eight states nationwide in which consumers can purchase raw milk in grocery stores.
In May, a hearing was held on a bill that would allow for the sale of raw milk in neighboring New Jersey. Of the 30 or so farmers, consumers and health professionals who testifiedbefore the Assembly’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, most were in favor of overturning the state ban.
“This is a consumer choice bill in so many ways, and it would help make our dairy farms competitive,” said Marcia Karrow, a state senator and the bill’s sponsor. “It’s so easy for consumers who want raw milk to travel across the river to Pennsylvania or over the border to New York, where its sale is legal, and cut our farmers out.”
Brant Gibbs said his farm was selling “the same thing as when I graduated from high school in 1981, but operating at 2009’s costs.”
“Selling raw milk would be the only way that we could ever get back into dairy,” said Cristianna Gibbs, Mr. Gibbs's wife and a municipal health officer. “We need to get back to basics. People want to know where their food comes from.”
At least one farmer who testified at the hearing, though, was concerned that the slightest case of illness from raw milk could be disastrous for the entire dairy industry. Margery Eachus, who owns a seventh-generation farm in Salem County, said that far from saving farms, raw milk could “hurt all of us.”
Raw milk advocates say that pasteurization kills enzymes and bacteria that are nutritionally beneficial and aid in digestion and diminishes vitamin content. Studies that they cite link raw milk consumption to lower instances of tooth decay, infection, allergy and asthma.
However, John Sheehan, director of the F.D.A.’s division of plant and dairy food safety, is adamant that raw milk enjoys “no health benefits not also attached to pasteurized milk.”
In his testimony before the Maryland House of Delegates in March, Mr. Sheehan said that “raw milk should not be consumed by anyone, at any time, for any reason.”
As an exception, the FDA permits the sale of cheeses made from raw milk, so long as they are aged for at least 60 days; as a cheese ages, its acid and salt help destroy pathogens.
But even as some states contemplate revising their raw milk prohibitions, U.S. laws surrounding cheese may become more stringent. The 60-day aging requirement is no longer thought to be effective, Mr. Sheehan said, and is currently under review.
In the Canadian province of Quebec, a listeria outbreak in the fall of 2008 was traced to unpasteurized cheese. One person died; more than 30 became ill.
Authorities in the province recalled 27,000 kilograms, or nearly 60,000 pounds, of cheese from hundreds of producers before identifying the two believed responsible for the outbreak. Producers say that millions of dollars worth of cheese was destroyed and that cheese counters and shops were closed for up to a month and a half.
“The government was very drastic in the way they handled things because it was hard to know at the outset who the carrier was and immediate action had to be taken,” said Pierre Nadeau, chief executive of the Quebec Dairy Council, an industry group.
Though the Quebec government said that it would not compensate individual merchants, it did announce a three-year aid package worth 8.4 million Canadian dollars, or $8 million, to help revive its cheese industry, including interest-free loans for struggling producers.
In addition, the agriculture ministry began to institute monthly inspections. “These free tests have been a tremendous help to producers because the government is showing them how to take the proper precautions,” said Mr. Nadeau.
But some cheese makers say that, far from being a help, Quebec’s new regulations are driving artisanal cheese producers out of business. They call the inspections “excessive” and denounce the province’s microbiological standards as more rigid than even those in certain American states.
“Right now the government is killing the raw-milk cheese sector in Quebec,” said Louis Arsenault, president of the Artisanal Cheese Maker’s Association of Quebec and co-owner of La Fromagerie des Grondines. Mr. Arsenault said that under the pressure of new scrutiny, half of the province’s two dozen raw-milk cheese producers have made the switch to pasteurization.
“If they’ve stopped making raw-milk cheese, it’s because the Mapaq was harassing them and they could no longer support it, financially,” said Mr. Arsenault, using a French acronym for the ministry. “Quebec’s severe rules regarding, in particular, levels of E. coli, make it so that many of our cheeses can’t be commercialized. But according to standards in Europe, they are perfectly fine.”
In the United States, the F.D.A.’s aging requirement has meant that young raw-milk cheeses, like fresh goat cheese or Brie de Meaux, cannot be imported from Europe either.
A U.S. import alert from the 1980s prohibits France from exporting soft and soft-ripened cheeses to that country if they are not made from pasteurized milk in plants certified by the French authorities, even if they have been aged for more than 60 days.
French cheese makers lament the fact that supplying the American market means contributing to the decline of their long raw-milk cheese tradition.
Some feel the same in Quebec, even though, ironically, about a month before the listeria outbreak, Quebec announced a new regulation that would allow for the sale of raw-milk cheese aged less than 60 days — the only one of its kind in the country. The law, from July 2008, is still in effect. But so far, only one cheese maker has acquired a permit to sell young unpasteurized cheese.
Michel Houle, interim assistant director of the Quebec ministry’s inspection coordination unit, said that other cheese producers were preparing to take advantage of the new regulation but that their facilities “just aren’t ready yet.”
“If you don’t have the 60-day requirement, then you need to replace it with controls on the raw materials and the finished products,” he said. “There are a lot of conditions attached to this law.”
But artisanal cheese producers see the delay as a turnabout by the government.
“The Quebecois government said it was opening the doors to us,” Mr. Arsenault said. “But after the crisis, they decided to close the door, literally. It’s sad because our province has always been a pioneer in the world of dairy, and we producers could have done some great things.”