Got milk? No? No biggie--just zip to your local supermarket and pick up a carton. Got raw milk? Now that's trickier. Carol Peterson, an IT manager at Xerox, drives almost two hours each month to her favorite farm in upstate New York for her unpasteurized supply. Susan Mueller, a mother of two in Ithaca, N.Y., bought shares in a dairy farm so she could pick up her raw milk and yogurt at a drop-off point closer to home. And they consider themselves lucky. In Manhattan some raw-milk drinkers hire a mule to bring the white stuff to an agreed-upon location in the city, where they stock up during a strictly enforced two-hour window. "Sometimes I just can't believe this is all about milk," says Peterson.
Believe it. Since 1987, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has required that milk sold and distributed between states for human consumption be pasteurized, meaning it must first be heated to kill off most of the bacteria that might be lurking in the barn or flourishing in the cow. But a growing contingent of natural-food fans is demanding the right to bring milk from teat to table, convinced that pasteurization strips away the very stuff that makes milk so nutritious to begin with. Farmers are more than willing to meet the demand, since raw-milk products--milk, cheese, yogurt and cream--can be sold at a thick premium. But both buyer and seller may be at odds with the law. Though the FDA allows the sale of raw-milk cheese that has been aged for 60 days, it doesn't permit the sale of raw milk over state lines. Six states allow the sale of raw milk in stores, and 28 let consumers buy the straight stuff only on the farm where it is produced. In the rest, raw milk exists only on the black market.
Why drink raw milk at all? Fans are convinced that heating destroys the good bacteria--the same probiotic critters that retailers now add back into some yogurts--as well as enzymes that can be beneficial to your health. They claim that drinking raw milk can relieve asthma and eczema as well as give flagging immune systems a boost. Mueller started her daughter on raw milk last winter as an experiment. "The previous year, she had bronchitis, an ear infection, a urinary-tract infection and three or four colds," Mueller says. "This year she missed two days of school all winter." That's why Mueller joined the cow-share program, in which members pay quarterly fees of $100 to $200 for the upkeep of the animals and get raw milk in return. As an owner, her family receives its raw milk as dividends. No state or federal authority can prevent you from drinking milk from a cow you own, right?
Not everyone is sold on raw milk. The growing consumption of unpasteurized products has food-safety authorities warning about a potential uptick in the milk-borne illnesses that pasteurization was designed to prevent. Disputes over the safety of raw milk are being waged on websites like Realmilk.com and increasingly in the courts. California food and agriculture officials began battling with farmers last month over a new state law requiring raw milk to meet the same safety standards as pasteurized milk. John Sheehan, director of dairy-food safety at the FDA, has likened drinking raw milk to "playing Russian roulette with your health"; advocates accuse the agency of relying on outdated information and harassing raw-milk producers in order to protect the pasteurizing industry. "The heat from the government against us is just palpable," says Mark McAfee, founder of Organic Pastures Dairy in Fresno, Calif., which produces and ships raw milk across the country.
So who's right? The available evidence suggests that without a bug-killing step like pasteurization, even the cleanest dairy with the healthiest cows cannot always expect to produce safe milk. In testimony before Maryland state delegates, the FDA's Sheehan stressed that raw milk in any form "should not be consumed by anyone, at any time, for any reason." He cited 45 outbreaks of disease from 1998 to 2005 that were traced to unpasteurized milk or cheese--and pointed to the dangers of exposing the vulnerable immune systems of young children, the elderly and those with immune disorders to the colonies of bugs that can populate untreated dairy. Raw milk makes up less than half of 1% of milk sales in the U.S. but accounts for twice as many disease outbreaks as pasteurized milk.
Farmers like McAfee counter that all raw milk is not created equal. Government surveys, they claim, lump together raw milk that is destined for pasteurization--and therefore doesn't have to be table-ready--along with milk, like McAfee's, that is produced for human consumption. But that doesn't convince Kathryn Boor, chair of food science at Cornell University, who grew up on a farm drinking raw milk--but won't do it now. "You can't always tell when a cow is sick," she says. "And cows can sometimes kick the milking machine off. Generally, what's on the barn floor is not something I want in a glass."
So could raw milk ever be made safer to drink? Maybe. It would help to mandate that it meet the same bacteria-count standards as pasteurized milk, as Washington and Maine currently do. But even with regulations, consumers would still be putting a lot of trust in the farmer and the health of the cow. In the end, that may be too much work for a glass of milk.
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