Milk in the raw spurs debate

Farmers say careful practices ensure safety; health officials push pasteurization

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

Published:

 
photoDarryl Koistinen, who owns Dobler Hill Dairy in Woodland, milks one of nine goats during the evening milking Wednesday. Koistinen and his wife, Andria, produce and sell raw goat milk at their farm and local produce stands.

To some, raw milk has an unwarranted bad rap. Raw milk dairies in Washington are closely regulated and monitored to detect and prevent contamination.

To others, the unpasteurized milk isn’t scrutinized enough. Raw milk can contain harmful bacteria — such as E. coli, salmonella and listeria — which are responsible for serious illnesses.

Darryl and Andria Koistinen, owners of the Dobler Hill Dairy in Woodland, agree some criticism is warranted. They produce and sell raw goat milk on their 10-acre farm. Their product can be risky, especially for pregnant women, children and people with lower resistance to disease.

"We like our customers to know there's a risk when they buy it," Andria said.

But they also believe raw milk illness outbreaks, like the recent event stemming from a farm near Wilsonville, Ore., cast the whole industry in a bad light.

"It's not something for everybody," Darryl said. "Pasteurization is good for the general public. … For the people that want to drink (raw milk), they should."

Raw milk is milk from cows, sheep or goats that has not gone through the pasteurization process, which heats the milk to kill harmful bacteria, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Four of the state's 36 raw milk dairies are in Clark County. All four farms are licensed by the Washington State Department of Agriculture to produce and sell raw milk, according to Clark County Public Health.

Spanish Sonrise Dairy in Yacolt produces raw milk from cows. Dobler Hill Dairy and the two other farms — Conway Family Farms in Camas and Finnmark Farms in Yacolt — produce goat milk, according to county records.

Licensed sales allowed

Washington state allows the sale of raw milk but only by producers and processors licensed by the Department of Agriculture. The state visits each farm and regularly inspects the facilities, checks the animals and tests the milk. In addition, the state requires farms to have sanitation schedules, adequate drainage and safe water.

The state also requires that retail raw milk products come equipped with a warning label alerting consumers of the risk of potential bacteria. Federal law prohibits the transportation of raw milk across state lines.

The Koistinens started selling raw milk at their farm and local produce stands about a year ago, but they've been milking goats for personal use for about four years. They both grew up on raw milk -- Darryl on cow milk from his family's dairy in South Dakota; Andria on goat milk produced by a neighbor in Hockinson -- and are now raising their own kids on raw milk.

"I think it tastes better," Andria said. "When you do it yourself, you're confident in your work and your farm."

"Why pasteurize it if it's good milk?" Darryl added.

But health officials argue the unpasteurized milk comes with a significant risk.

"The bottom line is raw milk is inherently dangerous," said Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County health officer. "No matter what your hygienic practices are on the farm, there is no way to guarantee the milk is safe from contamination."

State regulations reduce, but don't eliminate, the risk, Melnick said. Even trace amounts of bacteria — something even the most sensitive test won't detect — can cause serious illness, he said.

"That is exactly why we've been pasteurizing milk for the last 100 years," Melnick said.

Clouding the situation are the myths surrounding raw milk, he said. The biggest myth: Raw milk is nutritionally superior to pasteurized milk, Melnick said.

"The bottom line is, it does not have better nutrition than pasteurized milk, and it's not easier to digest than pasteurized milk, and it is dangerous," Melnick said. "There's no benefit in all the risk."

Forty-eight people in Washington state were sickened from raw milk in seven different incidents from 1998-2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The data don't indicate whether the milk came from licensed dairies, only that it was consumed in private homes.

During that same time period, the CDC didn't report any illnesses from pasteurized milk.

Darryl Koistinen agrees the likelihood of a person getting sick from pasteurized milk is slim. But the Koistinens said they follow and exceed state requirements for farm cleanliness and milk processing. They've never gotten sick from drinking raw milk nor have any of their customers.

"Know your farmer. Know your supplier," Darryl said. "Then you know you're getting good milk."

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health;http://facebook.com/reporterharshman;marissa.harshman@columbian.com.