For Pamela and Ray Robinson, producing raw milk has been an economic lifesaver for their small, organic farm in Hardwick, Mass. Back when they used to send their milk for pasteurization, they earned less than they spent.
“Being conventional dairy farmers wasn’t paying the bills” says Pamela Robinson, a retired nurse midwife whose husband is a fourth generation farmer.
But their new source of income puts them in direct conflict with public health officials, who say raw milk is dangerous.
Massachusetts legislators are currently considering whether to make it easier for boutique farmers to sell raw milk – a measure backed by farmers like the Robinsons and advocates who say raw milk is more nutritious than pasteurized milk, which is heated to kill off pathogens. They say proper farming techniques, including a more stringent routine of cow care, milking procedures and testing, ensure safe milk.
But health officials say that farmers’ good practices can’t guarantee safety, and the extra health benefits come at too high a cost: a 150-times higher risk of food poisoning.
“Don’t drink it!” says Dr. Barbara Mahon, a CDC epidemiologist. “It is one of the likeliest foods there is to carry germs that can make you seriously sick.”
Robinson says she’s frustrated by the current law.
“A lot of our customers come from urban areas,” she says. “All the border states have looser raw milk laws, so we lose business to them.”
Milk is a big deal in the American diet. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey defines it as a dietary staple, with the average American drinking 23 gallons of milk a year. The bulk of the milk consumed in this country is pasteurized. The practice of pasteurization came about in the late 19th century when, according to the Center for Disease Control, infections attributed to milk consumption were commonplace. The FDA banned the interstate selling of raw milk in 1984, and the legal status of a raw milk sales is up to state legislation.
Mahon and a team of CDC epidemiologists published a report last year on dairy-related outbreaks, specifically comparing those attributed to pasteurized and non-pasteurized milk and cheese.
They compared the incidence of foodborne outbreaks attributed to non-pasteurized dairy in states where its sale was legal compared to states that prohibited the sale of raw dairy products between 1993 and 2006. They found that of all the dairy-related outbreaks that occurred during those years, 60% were attributed to unpasteurized products and 75% of the outbreaks occurred in the 21 states that gave the green light to the sale of raw milk. They reported that, on the basis of the amount consumed, raw dairy products are at least 150 times more likely than pasteurized products to cause an outbreak.
Of the outbreaks studied, those attributed to raw dairy contamination had a 13% hospitalization rate, in contrast to the 1% hospitalization rate of the outbreaks stemming from pasteurized milk.
Laws that restrict the sale of non-pasteurized dairy products greatly reduce the risk of outbreak, Mahon says. Increased access to raw milk by the general public will put kids at highest risk, she says, because unpasteurized dairy outbreak-related illnesses disproportionately affect them. The study found that 60% of illness that resulted from raw milk contamination affected people who were 19 years old or younger.
“I’m a pediatrician, so this speaks loudly to me,” she says. “The worst illnesses associated with the raw milk outbreaks were in children. It is so regrettable and dangerous.”
Winton Pitcoff, a raw milk activist and coordinator of Northeast Organic Farming Association, says the bill is intended to help people who are already drinking raw milk – not bring in a bunch of new customers.
“The point of the law is to meet the demand for raw milk in Massachusetts,” he says.
The current lack of regulatory oversight gives rise to nebulous situations like raw milk “buying clubs” – informal arrangements amongst consumers who designate one person to drive to the farm and pick up the raw milk supply for many.
“It’s hard to make it to the farm stand each week,” he says. “With a buying club, you have a minivan with a blanket over the milk in the back and there could be problems. But if the farmer brings directly to customers, they want to make sure the milk is handled using excellent transportation standards.”
Pitcoff also suggests that laws that bar farmers from moving their raw milk off their land for sale is in opposition to Massachusetts’ strong environmental commitments.
“The state is committed to decreasing the burning of fossil fuels,” he says, “but the laws that govern raw milk distribution promote the opposite. One farmer driving to Cambridge to serve 100 customers is a lot more efficient than 100 customers driving to farm.”
Readers? Thoughts? Raw milk experiences?