The first time Jacqueline Jones tasted raw milk, she was astonished by the flavor. A longtime organic milk drinker, she made the switch to unpasteurized milk after some friends told her about it. Later, after drinking raw milk on a daily basis, it was the way she felt physically that most surprised her.
“I was blown away by the difference in the taste,” she said. “I’ve pretty much had raw milk every day for the past five years. My husband and I drink raw milk smoothies every day for breakfast. And I’ve had zero health concerns. In fact, I have better health and that’s why I’m a fan. ”
Jones, who lives in Fairfield, said the hay fever and allergies that plagued her have vanished. There is only one aspect of raw milk that she doesn’t like: In Iowa, as in many other states, it’s illegal to sell raw milk. That’s why Jones, which is not her real name, asked to remain anonymous. “It bothers me that it’s illegal. I buy it from a local farmer. I don’t want to get anyone in trouble.”
Raw Avoids Pasteurization
Raw milk is milk that has not been pasteurized, a process that involves heating the milk to a certain temperature for a certain amount of time to kill germs. Pasteurization has been standard practice in the United States for many years. Raw milk advocates say that pasteurization kills not only harmful bacteria, but beneficial bacteria as well and that heating milk alters proteins and strips milk of its core nutritional value.
Like Jones, a growing number of raw milk advocates tout not only the health benefits, but the local nature of the product. They like going to the farm and seeing where their milk comes from. In states where retail sales of raw milk are legal, they like knowing that their milk was produced locally. A federal law against transporting raw milk across state lines sees to that.
FDA Warns of Safety Issues
Behind the bucolic images of friendly farmers waving as they drop off the morning milk to happy, healthy families, fortified by the pure goodness of raw milk, a battle rages. In Wisconsin, a farmer was arrested for illegal sales of raw milk following a government raid on his farm. In Pennsylvania, agents from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration conducted an undercover sting operation to nab an Amish farmer accused of selling raw milk across state lines.
“The FDA has made squelching raw milk access their main priority,” Kimberly Hartke, a spokesperson for realmilk.com, said. “The government is blind to the desires of consumers. They want to control the milk at the source. The government is getting pressure from big dairy to do something about the raw milk movement. They don’t want the competition. But it’s not like it’s a cheaper product. It’s vastly more. We’re paying $10 and up for a gallon. But raw milk is a better product. It is vital to my health.”
Both the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control say raw milk and dairy products made from raw milk are unsafe for human consumption. Period. Both cite the potential for contamination of raw milk by harmful bacteria and viruses. They cite outbreaks across the country stemming from contaminated raw milk products, outbreaks that have resulted in thousands of illnesses and even a couple of deaths, according to a recent CDC study. While thousands of illnesses and at least one death have resulted from pasteurized dairy consumption as well, authors of the CDC study and the FDA remain vehement about the dangers of raw milk. And they say there is no evidence to support the benefits raw milk advocates trumpet.
Barbara Mahon, a medical epidemiologist with the CDC and one of the study’s authors, told me despite improvements in safety and hygiene on small farms that produce raw milk, the risks still outweigh any perceived benefit.
“I have no doubt that better hygiene on farms leads to a lower risk,” she said. “But no matter how clean they keep their cows and equipment, how much attention they give to sanitation, there is no way to ensure raw milk is safe.”
Iowa Bans Raw Milk Sales
Existing state laws run the gamut. In short, 10 states allow retail sales, 28 states have approved farm sales, cow- and herd-share arrangements are allowed in some states, and in 10 states, including Iowa, raw milk sales are banned outright. In no state is it illegal to purchase, possess, or consume raw milk, however. But health officials say drinking raw milk is unsafe.
Health problems are associated with other foods as well, Mahon acknowledged. Tomatoes, cantaloupes, and jalapeno peppers have been the source of salmonella poisonings in recent years, resulting in severe illnesses. But Mahon says the contamination associated with raw milk is more troubling. Children, she said, are especially susceptible to the pathogens in raw milk.
“Raw milk has consistently been connected with outbreaks,” Mahon said. “Campylobacter in raw milk is the single most common pathogen-food combination. I think the risks are clear. The number of outbreaks associated with raw milk has been going up year by year. In states that do regulate raw milk there have been repeated outbreaks.”
Up to this point, there has been little scientific evidence to support purported health benefits of raw milk, which advocates say include reducing asthma symptoms in children and easing allergies, among other things. Most of the benefits are anecdotal. But according to a recent study by Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute in Basel, Switzerland, in Europe, where raw milk sales are legal, children who drink raw milk are less likely to develop asthma and allergies compared to kids who drink pasteurized milk. Still, researchers with that study do not recommend parents start giving their children raw milk. Questions about its safety, they say, prevent wholesale approval of raw milk products.
The Consumer’s Right to Choose
What raw milk supporters want primarily, they say, is the right to make food decisions for themselves, without what they see as scare tactics and over-regulation from government. Frances Thicke agrees. Thicke, a candidate in 2010 for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, owns and operates Radiance Dairy, an organic farm in Fairfield. Though he doesn’t sell raw milk, he believes farmers and consumers should have the option.
“I’m in favor of people having the choice,” Thicke said. “I think it’s over regulated. Is there any food they can make 100 percent safe?”