Convinced of its dangers, health officials cry “Pasteurize!”
Farmers find strong income source from producing raw milk for health-driven customers despite regulatory complexity.

By Amy Shollenberger


Photo by Greg Bowman

Cow shares make consumers owners;
require research for all concerned

In many states, it is illegal to sell raw milk to consumers. However, some consumers who want raw milk have worked with farmers to find a structured way to get the raw dairy products that they desire through a “cow share” arrangement.

In most states, even when a farmer is not allowed to sell raw dairy products, it is legal for people to consume raw dairy products from a cow that they own. To care for cows under this approach, farmers sell shares of cows, and then the people who actually own the cows are given the milk from their cows. In a cow-share agreement, consumers pay a boarding fee to the farmer for their cow, and the farmer has the responsibility of caring for and milking the cow. The cow-share owner picks up their share of the milk each week.

A few states (most notably Wisconsin) forbid even this arrangement, and farmers and consumers in such states have to go to even greater lengths to stay within the law. In these states, “farm share” agreements are set up (with the farm becoming incorporated) and the consumers become owners of the farm itself. Although this process is more difficult and expensive to set up, it provides the farmer with the necessary legal protection in these states.

A few states to the south, Apple Family Farm created the Indiana Cow Sharing Association in 2002. According to the farm’s website, this association “was born to assure that the owners made the decisions for their cows and that they would work as a group to decide key management practices.” Apple Family Farm was also ordered to cease and desist from selling raw milk in 2002, at which time they held a series of meetings to find a way to provide their customers with the products they wanted while remaining within the law.

The farm website notes, “The laws of Indiana clearly state that ‘every particle of milk or a milk product that is offered for sale, sold, delivered, or possessed with the intent to sell or deliver to a consumer be pasteurized’ IC 15-2.1-23-1 and IC 15-2.1-23-8.5(a) According to Indiana code 15-2.1-2-47 the term "sale" in the dairy stature includes leases, trades, donations, barters, or any other exchanges. Please understand that the milk that you obtain from your cow can in no way be sold or distributed under any circumstance!”
(www.applefamilyfarm.com)

Costs for the cow shares vary, but a typical arrangement involves an up-front cost for purchasing the cow (or part of the cow) and bottles, and then a monthly or quarterly boarding fee. A farm in Virginia offers shares of a cow for $60 each, which results in one gallon/week, with a $15/month boarding fee, while a whole cow at Apple Family Farm costs $1000, with a $400/month boarding fee.

– A.S.

Resources

Raw milk proponent Sally Fallon interviewed:
Interview with Sally Fallon
www.acresusa.com/
toolbox/reprints/May
2006_FallonInterview.pdf

Local food promoter Nina Planck’s site includes stories on whole and raw milk:
www.ninaplanck.com

Ohio HB 534, the “Raw Milk Bill” introduced March 13, would legalize on-farm sale of raw milk by Grade A dairies that hold a raw milk retailer license. It would exempt cow-share ownership from the regulation.
www.wantmilk.org/
forum/index.php

National Raw Milk Use and Safety Summit, May 26-27, Norfolk, Nebraska.
Goal: develop a fact sheet on raw milk use and safety considerations.
www.knox.unl.edu/
files/file060331131801

registration form:
www.knox.unl.edu/
files/file060331132258

The official view on milk safety is contained in “Got Milk? Make sure it’s pasteurized” from a 2004 edition of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s FDA Consumer magazine
www.fda.gov/fdac/
features/2004/504_
milk.html

May 11, 2006: On a recent speaking tour in Vermont, Dr. Ken Taylor, Clinical Director at Integrative Healthcare Solutions in Dallas, Texas, summed up his beliefs about unpasteurized milk. “Raw milk is food, and pasteurized milk isn’t food,” he stated to a crowd of 80 gathered to hear him speak at a local farm.

Dr. Taylor was in Vermont for a speaking tour sponsored by two local farm-advocacy groups and the Weston A. Price Foundation, a national group that advocates for raw milk sales (www.realmilk.com). His presentation reflected the beliefs of many in the U.S. and around the world—that unpasteurized dairy products offer true health benefits because they are “living food.” In other words, they are enzyme-rich, full of essential vitamins and other nutrients, and contain “good bacteria” – qualities which are said to alleviate allergies, arthritis pain, osteoporosis and diabetes.

There are consumers across the country going to great lengths to obtain raw dairy products, such as milk, yogurt, kefir, cheese and butter, in an effort to positively affect their health.

Dr. Taylor noted that in Texas he buys dairy products from a farmer who delivers the milk and other products once a week to his office for his patients because the farm is located 60 miles away from the Dallas clinic. A group in Vermont takes turns driving over an hour to a farm to pick up milk for residents of a housing cooperative. In Colorado, Guidestone Dairy (www.guidestonefarm.com) has started a “cow share” program to supply milk (see sidebar).

Although there is no hard data as to how many farmers are selling raw milk products or how many consumers are buying it—largely because of the legal limitations around the products—it is clear that the numbers are growing. In every state, farmers and consumers are producing and buying these products. The Weston A. Price Foundation has nearly doubled its membership in one year and has gone from 90 members at its first conference five years ago to 1,000 at this past fall’s conference.

Rural Vermont (www.ruralvermont.org), a statewide advocacy group working for economic justice for family farmers, estimates that at least 200 farmers are selling raw milk directly to consumers in Vermont, and the office regularly receives calls from consumers looking for raw dairy products.

In addition to the perceived health benefits of the milk, customers who buy farm-fresh products value the visits to the farms where they make their purchases. Families enjoy teaching their children about where food comes from, and spending time on the farm. They can also see how the animals are treated and what kinds of safety and cleanliness practices are in place.

California dairy leads raw-milk initiative

Mark McAfee recently visited Vermont to share the story of his Organic Pastures Dairy with local farmers as part of a speaker series sponsored by Rural Vermont and the Northeast Organic Farming Association (www.nofavt.org). He developed the Raw USA customer-certification program, where farmers agree to meet listed requirements and customers can inspect to determine how the listed items are implemented.

The Raw USA website (www.rawusa.org) includes a checklist for a customer to take to a farm that is in the program in order to do an “inspection.” The standards include requirements for regular testing of the milk for pathogens, ethical treatment of animals, regular testing of the animals for disease, cold storage of milk and cleanliness of equipment and milking parlors. Raw USA also calls for “24/7 transparencies and verifiable standards for business and production practices.” McAfee urges that farmers “super-comply” with state laws on raw milk, using the Raw USA protocol where no regulations exist and to use them in addition to state law where they do.

McAfee’s bottom line is clear: “We farm by Mother Nature’s blueprint,” he explained to farmers gathered in a neighbor’s kitchen. “Keep cold, cold; hot, hot; green, green; and clean, clean,” he summarizes. His advice to farmers is not to sterilize everything, but rather just wash it clean because sterility creates an environment where pathogens can thrive. This violates common organic milk sanitation practice, but he reasons, “You need the good bacteria to fight the bad.” He claims seven years of testing without a single human pathogen – even in his cow’s manure.

Farmers are realizing that this demand for unpasteurized milk can mean a fair price for their products – something farmers rarely see in the commodity market, where milk is shipped to processors for pasteurization and distribution, and the price is set through a complicated formula.

Farmers who ship milk in the commodity market get paid by the “hundredweight” (cwt) – one hundred pounds of milk, or just shy of 12 gallons. Currently, the conventional (non-organic) milk price is $12/cwt. Farmers report the cost of production to be anywhere from $13 to $17/cwt, as fuel, fertilizer and feed prices rise.

Double the money, but there’s the law…

Organic farmers who ship on the commodity market report an organic milk price of approximately $26/cwt. Most farmers claim this is a fair price that allows them to meet their cost of production and realize a small profit margin. However, farmers who are selling raw milk direct to consumers can often receive $5/gallon, not much more than the price of milk in the store for many consumers, but over $50/cwt for the farmer. This price means the farmer can have fewer cows, and support their family without off-farm work in many cases.

So why isn’t this a widely-known phenomenon? Why aren’t farmers turning away the milk trucks and only selling direct to consumers? Why is it so difficult to find raw milk products?

In most states, the sales of raw milk are greatly restricted, if not completely illegal. In some states, raw milk can only be sold as “pet food,” and in others, farmers can sell only from the farm and cannot advertise. In California, however, the sale of raw milk in retail stores is completely legal. Other states vary between these extremes.

The federal government first adopted the “Pasteurized Milk Ordinance” (PMO) — first called the “Standard Milk Ordinance” — in 1924. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “activities in the area of milk sanitation began at the turn of the century with studies on the role of milk in the spread of disease. These studies led to the conclusion that effective public health control of milk-borne disease requires the application of sanitation measures throughout the production, handling, pasteurization and distribution of milk and milk products.”

As such, the federal government approved the milk ordinance for voluntary adoption by state and local milk-control agencies. The FDA indicates that the “recommended Grade 'A' PMO is the basic standard used in the voluntary Cooperative State-USPHS/FDA Program for the Certification of Interstate Milk Shippers, a program participated in by all fifty (50) States, the District of Columbia and U.S. Trust Territories.” (www.cfsan.fda.gov/~ear/pmo03.html#foreword)

“Slop milk” spurs control efforts

In the 19th century, as the industrial revolution demanded concentrated populations of workers, grazing land was lost as cities grew. Yet, demand for milk in the cities was very high. At the same time, another sector was growing as well – whiskey distilleries. Ron Schmid explains what happened next in his book, The Untold Story of Milk.

Schmid explains that dairymen began keeping their cows in confinement, next to the distilleries, in order to take advantage of the waste products, called “distillery slop,” to feed to the cows. Schmid reports an estimate “that about 18,000 cows produced over five million gallons of slop milk each year for the consumption of New Yorkers – mostly New York’s children.” (p. 34) Schmid also outlines the sorry conditions in the cow quarters, and the high death rate among the animals because of the poor nutritional quality of the slop feed, as well as the high production rate and crowded conditions in the dairies. All of this led to poor quality milk, with many human pathogens, and thus, sick people (especially children). Soon enough, health professionals realized that bad milk was the cause of much of the sickness in the cities. However, there was much debate about how to deal with the problem.

Schmid explains that Henry Coit, M.D. created the first milk certification program to ensure the safety of raw milk for human consumption. His “Medical Milk Commission” established standards for producers to meet in order to provide a pure product for city dwellers. However, on the other side of the debate was Nathan Strauss, who was a proponent of pasteurization as a means to kill the pathogens and thus make milk safe for humans to drink. In the end, Strauss won the battle, and pasteurization became common practice in the U.S.

Proponents of pasteurization, including most public health officials, believe that drinking raw milk is a dangerous act, especially for people with compromised immune functions. This is because pathogens can be present in raw milk if conditions on farms are not up to appropriate protocols.

Pasteurization heats milk to a very specific temperature for a specific time (the higher the temperature, the less time is needed), without allowing “recontamination” of the milk after the heating occurs. The heating kills the bacteria and other pathogens in the milk, thus making it “safe” to drink. However, opponents claim that the heating also destroys valuable enzymes, such as phosphatase. In fact, the test to see if milk is adequately pasteurized is the test for the absence of this enzyme.

FDA: raw milk is too risky

Many health officials point to various outbreaks of disease that are allegedly linked to consumption of raw, unpasteurized milk. The FDA, for instance, has the following position: “FDA and other federal and state health agencies have documented a long history of the risks to human health associated with the consumption of raw milk. Clinical and epidemiological studies from FDA, state health agencies, and others have established a direct causal link between gastrointestinal disease and the consumption of raw milk. The microbial flora of raw milk may include human pathogens present on the cow's udder and teats. Further, the intrinsic properties of milk, including its pH and nutrient content, make it an excellent media for the survival and growth of bacteria.”

On August 10, 1987, FDA published in 21 CFR Part 1240.61, a final regulation mandating the pasteurization of all milk and milk products in final package form for direct human consumption. In this Federal Register notification, FDA made a number of findings including the following: "Raw milk, no matter how carefully produced, may be unsafe;" and “Opportunities for the introduction and persistence of Salmonella on dairy premises are numerous and varied, and technology does not exist to eliminate Salmonella infection from dairy herds or to preclude re-introduction of Salmonella organisms." (www.cfsan.fda.gov/~ear/mi-03-4.html)

Michigan was the first state to require, in 1948, that all milk sold to consumers be pasteurized. The state’s website urges, “Michigan consumers deserve the public health benefits provided by safe and wholesome pasteurized dairy products. The state’s pasteurization requirements have successfully protected our consumers for over 50 years and the Michigan Department of Agriculture strongly urges all consumers to drink only milk that has been safely pasteurized.” (www.michigan.gov/som/0,1607,7-192-29941_30586_30677-94782--CI,00.html)

Because most dairy studies have focused on pasteurized milk for many years, it is difficult to disprove these claims at this time, except through anecdotal evidence. (Rural Vermont is seeking funding to compare pathogen levels in milk produced for raw consumption with milk produced for pasteurization.)

However, despite this apparent lack of current science, many consumers still believe that raw milk is good for them. As such, they are working with farmers across the country to create systems to buy and sell raw dairy products. Although some farmers report feeling like drug dealers in these arrangements, consumer demand is high, and the price is right for the perceived superior value of the milk.

Time will tell whether consumer-driven market demand, if it continues at its current growth trajectory, will create a change in public-health policy or in how states seek to restrict raw milk sales.

Amy Shollenberger directs Rural Vermont, a nonprofit promoting a resilient local food system. She has 10 years of organizing and policy experience, including work as a press secretary and Congressional assistant. She also teaches workshops on campaign strategy, effective citizen advocacy, and grassroots and community organizing. Shollenberger drinks lots of wholesome raw milk and eats mostly local fare fresh from Vermont family farms.