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Some sour as state grabs raw milk

Inspectors impound supply meant to be sold at Athens farmers market

By Merritt Melancon | The Athens Banner-Herald

Athens locally grown food advocate Eric Wagoner has an appointment with representatives from the state Department of Agriculture on Monday.

They are coming to his house to watch him pour out 110 gallons of unpasteurized milk.

Inspectors call the milk, which is illegal to sell or distribute in Georgia, an imminent health risk, but the dozens of people who had ordered the milk say it tastes better and is better for you than pasteurized milk.

"People have been drinking raw milk for millennia," said Melissa Link, who buys her groceries from Athens Locally Grown, the food network Wagoner runs, and has been drinking raw milk for two years. "And all of the sudden, we have to put it through this extra process before we can drink it?"

The impounded milk was ordered by customers of Athens Locally Grown - a Web site that collects orders for meat and produce, matches the requests to local farmers' stock and distributes the food. Customers purchase the milk from a dairy in South Carolina, where it is legal to sell and distribute unpasteurized milk, and Web site organizers bring it to Athens on a weekly basis.

About 2,000 customers use the Athens Locally Grown Web site to buy groceries and about 100 farmers use the site to market their produce, said Wagoner, who organized the network of farmers and operates the site. Customers order early in the week and then pick up their groceries on Thursdays at the old Athens Farmers Market on West Broad Street.

This week, when Wagoner arrived to set up the market for people to pick up their groceries, inspectors from the state Department of Agriculture were waiting for him.

They wanted to make sure Wagoner wasn't selling any un-inspected meat, but what they found was 110 gallons of unpasteurized milk from the Cows R Us Dairy in South Carolina.

It is legal to sell unpasteurized milk for human consumption in South Carolina, but Georgia laws ban selling or distributing raw milk for human consumption, according to agriculture department regulations.

The inspectors told Wagoner they had no choice but to impound the $440 worth of creamy contraband, he said.

Because the inspectors were in sedans, they could not confiscate the seven coolers full of milk, so they placed impound stickers on the containers.

"They are going to meet me at my house Monday morning and watch me pour it all out," Wagoner said. "It's like the 1930s and bootlegging whiskey or something."

The scene would be comical if so many customers weren't disappointed, he said. Raw milk is popular and drew new people to the Athens Locally Grown network.

"That was pretty much the single biggest factor that contributed to our growth," he said. "Once we started offering it, people started driving from outside of the city to get their groceries. People would drive in to pick up milk who wouldn't drive just to pick up veggies."

Many Georgia dairies sell unpasteurized cow and goat milk, as long as it's labeled "For Pet Food - Not for Human Consumption," according to the Web site

While there's a market for it, raw milk is illegal in Georgia because it's dangerous, agriculture department officials say.

"We are generations removed from the days before pasteurization was available," Agricultural Commissioner Tommy Irvin said in a statement issued after a group of children were sickened by raw milk in 2007. "Some people have forgotten or are unaware of the problems and dangers arising from unpasteurized milk."

Unpasteurized milk can contain salmonella, E. coli and other strains of bacteria, according to the agriculture department.

That danger is overblown, say raw milk proponents, and the pasteurization process changes the makeup of the milk so it's harder to digest and less nutritious.

Pasteurization kills all the bad bacteria, but it also kills the good bacteria that people need for digestion, Wagoner said.

"If people have their own dairy cow and they want to drink raw milk - well, there's nothing we can do about that," said Terry Coleman, deputy commissioner of agriculture. "But we feel strongly enough about the danger to ban the sale or dispensing of raw milk. ... The law has been on the books for 40 or 50 years now."

Thursday's impoundment was not meant to spur debate over the best types of milk, said agriculture department representatives.

"We think it's pretty clear that it's against federal law to cross state lines with raw milk meant for human consumption, and it's against state law to sell or dispense raw milk," Coleman said.

Wagoner is aware of those laws, but he and several other local food advocates have found a way around them by allowing customers to order directly from the dairy, he said. The system he has developed follows the letter of Georgia's milk laws, while allowing people to get raw milk.

"I do not believe that the Georgia Department of Agriculture has any authority over those cartons of milk," Wagoner said in an e-mail Friday. "We are not violating federal law. We are not violating state law."


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