Raw milk draws fans, despite being illegal to sell
Article from Marketplace Magazine
In the milkhouse of her organic farm in New Holstein, Kay Craig (left) fills jars with raw milk for farm association member Sue Mundt. Members must provide their own jars or containers for raw milk, which cannot be sold but may be shared among owners. William J. Lizdas photo.
By Rick Barrett
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Some people drive a long way for a gallon of raw milk at Wayne Craig’s farm in New Holstein.
It’s one of a dozen or so dairy farms in the state openly providing unpasteurized milk to the public — a practice that regulators say is illegal and unsafe because the milk can carry pathogens capable of making someone very ill or even killing them.
Farmers, some of whom have been drinking raw milk themselves for generations, contend it’s safe. They also believe it’s legal to provide raw milk to the public on a limited scale.
Some of Craig’s customers have fond memories of growing up on a farm and getting their milk fresh from the cow’s udder.
Others, for health reasons, are trying to eliminate processed foods from their diets.
Either way, business is good as more consumers seek alternatives to the milk sold in grocery stores.
Linda Conroy, owner of a Sheboygan herbs business, says she believes raw milk has given her more energy.
“I have never been sick from it,” she said. “In fact, just the opposite is true. My health is a lot better.”
State law says farmers cannot sell or give away raw milk, but they can consume it themselves from cows they own. To satisfy demand from would-be customers, some farmers sell shares in their dairy herd and then provide raw milk to shareholders for a handling fee.
The Craig farm has had 1,000 members in an association it formed to supply raw milk — although not all of the members have been active at the same time.
Besides raw milk, people come to the farm’s store for organic beef and poultry.
“They’re trying to get back to natural, unprocessed food for the health benefits,” Wayne Craig said.
State regulators have known for years that some farms provide raw milk to the public. They contend it’s illegal and strongly oppose such sales. But with few exceptions, the state has not cracked down on a practice that’s minuscule compared with the rest of the state’s dairy industry.
“It’s under investigation right now,” said Tom Leitzke, state Bureau of Food and Safety Inspection director.
How dangerous is milk straight from the farm with no pasteurization?
In 2001, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention traced a food poisoning outbreak affecting 75 people to raw milk from a farm near Hayward. That farm has since gone out of business, according to state officials.
In 2006, cheese curds made from raw milk in Ashland County were blamed for sickening more than 40 people in seven counties and four states.
“It is truly a public threat,” said Donna Gilson, spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
Advocates claim that unprocessed milk is healthier because they believe pasteurization destroys nutrients and the enzymes necessary to absorb calcium.
But pathogens in unpasteurized dairy products can be lethal to children, the elderly, and others with weakened immune systems, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Symptoms of illness vary depending on which harmful bacteria are present. They can include vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever, headache and body ache.
Most healthy people will recover from the illnesses, according to the FDA. But some individuals can develop symptoms that are chronic, severe, or even life-threatening.
“There is a significant health risk that anyone takes if they consume raw milk,” said Barbara Ingham, an associate professor of food science at University of Wisconsin–Madison.
So why don’t people who live on dairy farms get sick from drinking their farm’s milk?
They can build up tolerances to some of the microbes because they have daily contact with dairy cows and the farm environment, according to Ingham. People who don’t live on farms lack those tolerances.
“It’s like traveling to Mexico and drinking the water,” said Ingham. “You may come down with an illness that people who live there wouldn’t get.”
Advocates for unpasteurized milk say the safety concerns are exaggerated.
“Reports of individuals becoming ill after drinking raw milk do exist … but even these reports do not usually provide proof that raw milk caused the illness,” said Sally Fallon, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, sponsor of the national Campaign for Real Milk. “When someone who drinks raw milk becomes ill, [government] agencies immediately report an ‘association’ with the milk, ignoring other vectors of disease and subsequent tests showing the milk to be clean.”
Fallon said she believes that pasteurization alters milk and makes it difficult to digest.
She also believes that drinking raw milk can help correct various health problems, including mood disorders.
“The biggest feedback that we get from parents is they have seen their children’s behavior improve. Children who were unmanageable, couldn’t concentrate, were picky eaters or were even autistic experienced dramatic improvements.”
The FDA and UW–Madison dairy scientists say there’s little evidence to support those claims. They also say the benefits of killing harmful bacteria through pasteurization outweigh any harm done by killing helpful microorganisms.
Farmers are wrong in believing they can legally provide raw milk to the public through cow sharing, according to state Agriculture Department officials. Yet the department initially created the cow-share program around 1999, only to cancel it a few years later. The program was a mistake and should never have been created, Leitzke told the Wall Street Journal in 2003.
Some farmers regrouped and found ways to do cow sharing that they believe are legal. Membership fees vary by farm, with some as low as $1 a year plus handling fees of several dollars for each gallon of milk.
“We wouldn’t be in business without this,” said Petra Zinniker, an East Troy dairy farmer.
The Zinniker farm has between 150 and 200 cow-share members, along with a waiting list of people wanting to join the program. It has a small dairy herd, of about 30 animals, and depends on the income from cow sharing and the handling fees.
The practice is more profitable than selling raw milk to a dairy processor.
Thus, raw-milk farmers are worried that state regulators will crack down on cow shares and put them out of business.
“It shouldn’t be illegal. That’s the bottom line,” said Mark Zinniker, Petra’s husband. “Rather, it should be about a consumer’s right to choose what they want.”
State officials say there’s a wide range of legal consequences for providing raw milk to the public, from a warning letter to a jail sentence, depending on the circumstances and whether someone has become ill from the product.
It’s also a national controversy.
One raw milk supplier, from California, ships frozen products around the country. That supplier, according to Wisconsin farmers, dodges federal regulations by labeling it “pet milk” — not for human consumption.
There are compelling arguments on both sides of the raw-milk controversy, said Mark Kastel, founder of the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin organization that supports organic farming and has taken a neutral position on raw milk.
“People have tried to paint this as a cult-type movement or political libertarian ideology,” said Kastel. “But we think that consumers should have the right to make their own decision.”