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Posted on Mon, Mar 22, 2010 : 11 a.m.

Exploring raw milk controversies in other states

By Edward Vielmetti


David Gumpert's "Raw Milk Revolution", Chelsea Green Publishing 2009

Raw milk was in the news last week, with an outbreak of Campylobacter linked to milk from an Indiana farm that sickened four local people. Today's link roundup looks at the debate over raw milk.

In British Columbia, Canada, a cooperative is defying orders from the provincial government to halt distribution of raw milk. "B.C. farm defies court ruling on raw milk," writes CBC News on Sunday, with the Supreme Court of British Columbia ruling that Home on The Range co-op in Chilliwack is "willfully causing a health hazard" by supplying its members with unpasteurized milk.

The Seattle Times reviews the raw milk controversy in Washington state, noting that there are 28 licensed raw milk dairies in the state. The author, staff reporter Maureen O'Hagan, writes "There's long been a libertarian streak running through the raw-milk crowd. A Christian one, too. Now it's attracting another demographic entirely: advocates of local food." 

Hundreds of supporters of raw milk packed hearings in Eau Claire, Wisc., where the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports that legislation to allow the sale of raw farm milk to the general public in that state is moving forward. The state is considering rules that would allow on-farm sales of unpasteurized milk, with regulations to require monthly testing of the milk and restrictions on advertising and marketing.

Forest Grove Dairy in Middlebury, Indiana is the dairy associated with the outbreak of Campylobacter linked to raw milk distributed by Family Farms' Cooperative of Vandalia. The Forest Grove Dairy received a warning letter from the Food and Drug Adminstration in 2007 warning it of violations of federal code. The letter on the FDA's site references 21 CFR 1240.61 on the mandatory pasteurization of milk delivered into interstate commerce; redactions in the original.

"The regulation prohibits the delivery into interstate commerce of [redacted] and [redacted] in final package form for direct human consumption unless they have been pasteurized. The [redacted] and [redacted] you produce in [redacted] and distribute to [redacted] and [redacted] for further distribution to their [redacted] is in final package form for direct human consumption."

A bill was introduced by Ron Paul (R-Texas), HR 778, "To authorize the interstate traffic of unpasteurized milk and milk products that are packaged for direct human consumption." In comments to the House floor in January 2009, the sponsor wrote "I urge my colleagues to join me in promoting consumers' rights, the original intent of the Constitution, and federalism by cosponsoring my legislation to allow the interstate shipment of unpasteurized milk and milk products for human consumption." The bill was referred to committee and did not get a second sponsor.

The Weston A. Price Foundation is a leading advocate for raw milk, with its Campaign for Real Milk organizing information for consumers on getting access to raw milk.

Bill Marler, an attorney who turned a lawsuit against Odwalla's sale of unpasteurized orange juice into a thriving practice in food safety law, writes about the Campylobacter outbreak in Michigan, with plenty of references to previous unsafe milk incidents.

David Gumpert, author of The Raw Milk Revolution (White River Junction, Vt.: Chelsea Green Pub., 2009) responds to Marler on his own blog with an account of how Family Farms' Cooperative responded to the latest outbreak: 

"As soon as Hebron learned the news late last week, he went public with members, first alerting them via email of the possibility that herdshare raw milk might be the culprit, then halting milk deliveries, and next doing extensive testing of both the dairy’s milk and its water sources. In addition, the herdshare has been in contact with local public health authorities, providing them with the lab testing data." 

Gumpert, a journalist and business writer, has emerged as a leading advocate for raw milk.

Edward Vielmetti writes for Reach him at 734-330-2465.



Tue, Mar 23, 2010 : 10:14 a.m.

We get raw milk from a nearby county. I know the farmer. If his customers get sick, he is out of business. He has one employee who lives on the farm with him. I assume they do this work because they love it, as the money they make is not enough for all the work they put in. If raw milk becomes popular, and is handled like regular milk, with multiple businesses with underpaid employees involved in milking, bottling & distribution, I would not be surprised to see more incidents of contamination.

Linda Diane Feldt

Tue, Mar 23, 2010 : 9:20 a.m.

This is a complex story, and the book you pictured by David Gumpert takes a look at some of the elements and characters. His telling of the tale of raw milk and the implications include mention of a gathering of raw milk farmers, lawyer, consumers, and others who all came to dinner at my home one night. The discussions were fascinating. I've since come to respect David and his combination of good journalism with advocacy for natural foods. Bill Marler is someone I only know by reading his posts on his blog, and as engaged in some of the ongoing and mostly enlightening controversies on Gumpert's blog. Marler is currently suing the largest raw milk supplier in California on behalf of his client, whose son experienced a life threatening illness. Connecting that illness to raw milk seems obvious to some, and out of the question due to extensive and clean testing showing no link, to many others. So his experience includes the worst case scenarios, and as a lawyer who is building the case for his client, and future clients who have experienced food poisoning and contamination effects. in order to make sense of this, there is a tendency to try and make things black and white, good or evil. For there to be sides. I think that works especially poorly with complex issues, and raw milk is one. For example, if you mix in cheese made from raw milk often by recent immigrants I'm told, the cases of contamination and illness go way up. Made and sold under less than ideal conditions, that makes sense. It is a bit like combining statistics for planned home births and emergency deliveries. You would expect the outcomes and the attitudes of the new parents to be widely variant. Planning to provide raw milk is something that begins with the healthy grass fed cow, which introduces a significant variant from conventional factory farming right off the bat. And it continues in both small as well as large ways. Carefully done. Thoughtfully done. One of the reasons it works to be involved in this cow share, the one in question, is the integrity of Richard Hebron, and the others who make up Family Farms. I would not participate if it were otherwise. There are many cow shares in Washtenaw County, small and large, and they would not continue if it wasn't a personal and trusting relationship. It is fascinating that there is such fear and upset about a product that does have some risk, which is why extra precautions are absolutely necessary, which is only available by private arrangement in Michigan, and which is pretty much as it was consumed since the implementation of agriculture. A couple thousand years. The grotesque condition of dairies in the last century made pasteurization a life saver, literally. I've read especially about New York city, and other large cities. Is it a requirement for all milk though? Not really. Other practices can take the place of sterilization. A local physician, Ted Beals, has done some of the interesting research into the benefits of raw milk. I understand he travels to hearings as an expert witness. He has also written some on the subject, I think mostly available through the Weston Price Foundation web site. I have been shocked at the almost fanatical devotion that people have to raw milk. Yet, when I have been without I miss it intensely. Nothing else is as good. it is deeply satisfying, in a way milk has never been for me, ever. The taste, and something more. I don't understand it. Thanks for jumping in, Ed. I'll send you some more leads on studies and the Michigan testimonials put together to influence the state response would be fascinating reading. And the blog is more on this subject than anyone should want. You'll see first hand many of the intense emotions and controversies, and the dialogue between some very knowledgeable people, who are not always polite nor kind. As David Gumpert writes in his book, the controversy of raw milk is just a microcosm of the exploding food issues we are only beginning to confront. That explains some of the passion, the fear, the attempt to dismiss advocates as crazy fanatics, and especially the anger. I think anger makes sense in so many of our food issues, but has been misdirected towards each other because the real target is so elusive and also so large as to be less comprehensible.

Rork Kuick

Tue, Mar 23, 2010 : 8:44 a.m.

If risk is greater than benefit, who pays the additional hospital bills? The libertarians, drinkers, or producers? Better practices may reduce the risk I admit. I do find myself a bit concerned that some statements of the pro-raw crowd are being made without sufficient evidence. Yoder's "properly cared for raw milk is actually safer" sounds either completely false, given data in the Seattle times story, or a "true scotsman" argument depending on post-hoc determination of "properly cared for" (if you got sick, it wasn't properly cared for, so the statement is unfalsifiable). Also, "personal accounts" are exactly what the worst quack doctors use as evidence. Food and supplement makers are able to make vague claims with almost no evidence, compared to what is permitted for drug claims. I'm openminded but risk vs benefit seems a tough call here, and whatever is so great about raw milk might be able to be delivered with less risk, like sticking it in yogurt or such, if we really understood. Exposure to manure may be hard to put in a pill though, if that's where some of the benefit comes from.


Tue, Mar 23, 2010 : 6:26 a.m.

Just educate people on the risks (getting sick) and the benefits (if any) and leave it at that. After all, you can eat raw eggs or raw meat if you want, right? Not so long ago people got sick from raw strawberries, so I don't see why milk is singled out. You always take the risk of contaminated food when it's raw. Granted, strawberries aren't usually dipped in cow manure, but that's where the *educated* consumer takes responsibility for their own actions comes in to play. So take the risk if you want, but don't whine if you get sick. I have to side with the Libertarians on this one.

Adam Jaskiewicz

Mon, Mar 22, 2010 : 4:57 p.m.

I'm not at all convinced of any benefits of consuming raw milk, with the possible exception of "it just tastes better"*. It seems to me that a lot can go wrong, and pasteurization reduces the risk drastically. Calder milk is pretty darn good, so I'll stick with that. On the other hand, if people know the risks, and still choose to consume raw milk, I don't see why they shouldn't be able to. Especially if people have to go out of their way to get the stuff---anyone who goes to the effort probably knows what they're getting into. * Not that I have any problem with "it just tastes better" as a reason to consume raw milk, raw cider, steak tartare, sunny-side up eggs, whatever. It's a perfectly valid reason.

Bill Marler

Mon, Mar 22, 2010 : 3:31 p.m.

"udderly" - love that someone still has a sense of humor. Illegal, that is not my point. I just want as much factual information out there so people can make wise choices.

Grace Yoder

Mon, Mar 22, 2010 : 3:27 p.m.

@ atnaap: You do make a good point about raw milk drinkers not being average. I think every one of them that I've met is very conscious of what they consume, and they tend to be pretty educated. This no doubt has something to do with good health. I'm pretty sure I'm just healthy, and I'm sure it's a combination of raw dairy and other dietary changes I made that account for my improved health. However, both my husband and my sister were lactose intolerant until they started consuming raw milk products. Now they consume it with ease, have less digestive issues, and my husband has definitely seen his asthma lessen in frequency (as in, he used to puff on his inhaler daily, and now I only see him use it when he's been in a house with cats). There are loads of personal accounts like these that are too numerous to deny, in my opinion. Raw milk is a very nutritious, probiotic food. It's certainly not the sole reason for improved health, but no single food is. When you pasteurize milk you kill any beneficial bacteria and you minimize the nutrient content of the milk. If properly cared for, I don't see any added risk and only added benefits- especially considering that the cows that produce this milk are pastured, healthy cows- undeniably healthier than the corn-fed cows in factory farms that produce most of the pasteurized milk we see today. Actually, I've recently heard of listeria infections due to pasteurized dairy, so it seems no one is safe. I've heard it argued that properly cared for raw milk is actually safer because it contains healthy levels of friendly bacteria that can help to defend the milk from contamination.

Rork Kuick

Mon, Mar 22, 2010 : 3:05 p.m.

I'm not clear if Marler want's raw milk to be udderly illegal, or merely asks that claims made for it be evidence-based, and for the risks to be well-known, which is hard to argue with. As a former consumer I am a bit tempted to at least obtain it on rare occasion, to let my daughter taste the real thing, and to make cheese. As a kid returning to the U.S. from Germany (where the cow keeping relatives live), I was shocked at the taste of pasteurized. I am not trying to be an advocate here, since I have read very little so far, but wanted to mention the taste. I have not made a recent comparison of the taste and would like a report.


Mon, Mar 22, 2010 : 2:49 p.m.

I think it's important to mention that there is very, very little evidence that raw milk has any positive health effects. Some correlation with lower asthma/allergy rates, but given the sort of people who drink raw milk, the milk is hard to separate out from other factors. They're not "average". Grace, it's great that your health has improved since starting to drink raw milk. That doesn't mean the milk has anything to do with it. If raw milk does help health, the effect size is probably fairly small (which is why the science is inconclusive), so your improvement is more likely placebo or chance than anything else. I don't think consuming unpasteurized milk is suicidal, but it seems like a weird place to take a risk given the unproven benefits and quality of Calder's milk.

Grace Yoder

Mon, Mar 22, 2010 : 2:27 p.m.

I think it's important to mention that in Michigan the farm's tests came back negative for Campylobacter. As in, the milk wasn't responsible for the infections. I'd like it if would start mentioning that in the stories they are running- seems kind of relevant. I'm a member of that cooperative and have been drinking the raw milk for over three years. I've only experienced improved health. I'm totally confident in both the quality of the raw milk and the competency/honesty of the farmers that provide it.