Bacterial breeding ground, or the pitcher of health?
It's difficult to find any middle ground between what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says about raw milk (that it's "an inherently dangerous food") and what proponents like Sally Fallon Morell have to say ("The mantra they keep giving us is garbage").
Pasteurization, which heats the milk to kill bacteria such as salmonella, listeria and E. coli that could be present, has been the law for milk that crosses state lines since 1987. But raw-milk advocates say the heating process also kills healthful bacteria and nutrients, unnecessarily altering a naturally delicious product.
Today, 20 states also prohibit intrastate raw milk sales in some form while 30 allow them, according to the FDA.
The Weston A. Price Foundation regularly cites new studies, often from Canada or Europe, that indicate raw milk is safe and beneficial. And the foundation's president, Fallon Morell, is known for touting raw milk as a cornerstone of the whole-foods diet she evangelizes.
"It's so obvious," she said. "Breast milk is raw milk, and nobody is telling mothers they have to pasteurize their breast milk."
John Sheehan, director of the FDA's Division of Plant and Dairy Food Safety, said the agency frequently reviews the latest science to determine whether any of its policies should be changed. "We really haven't seen anything published since 1987 that would cause us to change our opinion on the inherent dangers attached to raw-milk consumption," Sheehan said.
The FDA isn't alone in its warnings about the health risks. The American Academy of Pediatrics last month advocated for a nationwide ban on raw milk, citing dangers posed to pregnant women and children.
The FDA says that non-pasteurized dairy products are 150 times as likely to cause illness as their pasteurized counterparts, quoting a study of 121 dairy-related outbreaks from 1993 to 2006 conducted by the Centers for Disease Control.
The Price Foundation disputes the study's accuracy and counters with a study released and reviewed in June by the CDC's counterpart in British Columbia that identifies raw milk as a "low-risk" food and suggests that public health bodies update their policies.
The two groups also disagree on how many people drink raw milk.
The FDA says that fewer than 1 percent of Americans partake, while the Price Foundation cites a 2007 CDC survey that found that 3 percent of participants from several states had consumed raw milk in the previous week.
Fallon Morell said her group will continue to push for legislation to legalize raw-milk sales in more states, including Maryland, where she lives.
David Herbst, owner of Misty Meadows Farm Creamery near Smithsburg, Md., said he's concerned that access to more raw milk in his state could damage the dairy industry's image if it led to more illness. His farm pasteurizes its milk products but skips homogenization to leave a cream line in the milk.
"Milk has a very good public image as far as being safe," said Herbst, who's also president of the Washington County Farm Bureau. "We're just afraid, if 1/8raw milk3/8 were legalized, that there would be a lot of it sold, and there would be a lot more people getting sick."
— The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — How far will fans of raw milk go to get it? When the Jackson family first discovered it, they would drive nearly three hours round-trip from Williamsburg, Va., for their fix. That was when they had nine kids and no cows.
Ultimately, Kendra and Timothy Jackson went even further, moving the family to a 66-acre homestead in Warsaw, on Virginia's Northern Neck, about a year ago. Now, they have 11 kids and three cows, and obtaining unpasteurized milk is as easy as going to the barn (and then, of course, milking the cows).
"Once we started to have the milk, that was it," said Kendra, 38. "I really love the cows, and all of the kids love milk, so we found a place that was the best deal financially."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has required since 1987 that all milk sold across state lines be pasteurized, because it can otherwise contain dangerous bacteria that could cause illness.
But that doesn't mean the only option for those who want to drink it—- who say the purported health benefits outweigh the risks — is to buy a farm and a herd. Virginia allows "cow share" programs in which members pay to own a portion of the herd and receive its milk. And FDA officials say they don't pursue individuals who transport raw milk across state lines solely for personal consumption. Some delivery programs interpret the laws in their favor — or operate somewhat underground.
Maryland is one of four states that don't allow cow share programs. In the District of Columbia, there are no cows to be shared.
"D.C. has no farms, so it's kind of an anomaly. It's so close to areas where you can get it that a lot of people in D.C. drink raw milk," said Sally Fallon Morell, president of the Washington-based Weston A. Price Foundation, which promotes a diet of whole foods and fats, including raw milk. Best known for her 1999 cookbook "Nourishing Traditions," Fallon Morell is one of raw milk's most passionate advocates (and milks her own cows in Maryland).
Because so much of the distribution takes place under the radar, the number of raw-milk drinkers in the region is impossible to pin down. The Price Foundation estimates that 3 percent of people nationwide drink raw milk. The FDA, meanwhile, puts the number at less than 1 percent.
Joy Alexander, co-owner of Avery's Branch Farms in Amelia, Va., west of Richmond, said the farm's herd share program has delivered "hundreds" of shares of milk to members in Northern Virginia each week since its launch six years ago.
She was hesitant to disclose an exact number of members, worried it might draw unwanted attention to the operation. Her family worked with a legal fund at the outset to perfect the wording for its raw-milk program, which is openly advertised on the farm's Web site. "We had no idea how great the demand would be," said Alexander, whose farm delivers only to Virginia locations.
Many D.C. drinkers get their fix through buying clubs or "citizens associations." Instead of driving to Pennsylvania, where retail sale of raw milk is legal, they hire a "driver" (who is often the farmer) to deliver the milk to their neighborhoods.
A woman in Arlington, Va., who participates in such a club was eager to share her raw-milk story and invited a reporter to see a delivery firsthand. But when the farmer found out the reporter knew her address, he said he could no longer use her house as the drop-off point for the neighborhood.
"On one hand, I want to make a stink about what the government isn't allowing," the woman said, asking that her name not be used. "But, at the same time, my bigger goal is to be able to nourish my family."
Such clubs have been prosecuted, both regionally and nationwide.
In February 2012, a federal judge granted the FDA's petition for a permanent injunction against a Pennsylvania farmer who said he was "leasing" his cows through a private organization to consumers in the District of Columbia.
Frustration over the crackdown had spilled onto the Capitol lawn the previous spring, after the FDA filed for the injunction, as members of the farmer's Grassfed on the Hill buying club milked and drank from a cow in protest. Not much has happened with the group since, and its Facebook page is dedicated more to supporting national raw-milk cases than answering followers' queries about where to buy the product locally.
Finding folks who consume raw milk in the D.C. area — and who are willing to be interviewed — is kind of like finding raw milk itself. You have to know the right people. But once a reporter's query started circulating through the Price Foundation's membership, e-mail responses flowed in. Many said they had first tasted raw milk, which some describe as rich and creamy, in Europe or in states where sales of the unpasteurized product are legal. Others came to it as part of their quest to consume the least-processed foods.
Some claimed raw milk had cured acid reflux, eczema or osteoporosis, and more than a few said they could drink it despite lactose intolerance with the pasteurized version. The FDA disputes each of those health claims on its Web site.
One woman said she was having trouble finding raw milk in Maryland and didn't have the time to drive to Pennsylvania. She said she was contemplating buying frozen raw goat's milk from a pet food store to get her raw-milk fix. "But, I have to admit, I'm a little afraid to try it," she said.
Several e-mails digressed into rants about the role of government and access to food, including one that ended with the assertion, "but I am really a liberal."
"In terms of the political spectrum, you'll find people across the board. It's not all right or left," said Chris Downey, 44, of Annandale, Va., who turned his wife and three kids on to raw milk in 2009. "Once you apply some standards to the food you're eating for you and your kids, it's just a natural progression to look for something that's even better."
Downey said he's not concerned about health risks, such as the fact that by drinking unpasteurized milk he could be exposed to such bacteria as salmonella, listeria and E. coli. He had to sign a legal agreement as "a free citizen of the United States" to join the association through which he gets the milk. The cost of membership comes to about $7 a gallon.Hilda Gore, 51, said her first step away from processed foods for her family didn't take her much farther than the Whole Foods Market near her home here.
Then, she said, after committing to one food tenet, then more — local meat, local eggs, no genetically modified foods — raw milk became "the next step."
But most of her friends haven't joined her.
"I don't run around in hipster, crunchy-granola crowds," Gore said. "Now and then, I'll mention it to a neighbor or friend, and some will express dismay, and some will express interest."