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Dairy tale: Raw-milk lovers fond of their illicit commodity

May 10, 2011 - 11:03 AM
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Liz Reitzig will gladly tell you who she's not. “I don’t consider myself a fringe person at all,” she says. The Bowie resident is just a coordinator for a group of people who like to drink raw milk, a group that happened to be infiltrated by the FDA during a year-and-a-half sting operation that ended last week with a farmer in handcuffs for selling raw milk across state lines.

The sting is the latest lump in the regional saga of raw milk—that is, milk straight from the cow that has not been pasteurized. Proponents of the product tend to call it “real milk”; state and federal health agencies call it a threat to public health.

Pasteurization is the process---dating to the 1920s---of heating milk just enough to kill pathogens like Salmonella and Listeria and then cooling it rapidly. The scourge-killing innovation eliminated the menace of raw milk, which sickened millions and killed infants via bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis. About half of all states---including Maryland and Virginia---have raw-milk bans on their books, and it’s illegal to sell it across state lines. Pennsylvania, which allows sales in state, is the regional exception.

So why would anyone want to drink unpasteurized milk? It seems like the equivalent of driving down the highway with no seatbelt, yet every raw milk drinker interviewed for this story claims interest is skyrocketing and gave half a dozen reasons for the choice to consume it: It tastes better. I want to know where my milk comes from. The government can’t tell me what to feed my kids. The CDC’s statistics on illness and deaths from raw milk are flawed. It’s healthier. It’s a conspiracy between the FDA and big pharmaceuticals.

For Reitzig, the decision to feed her family raw milk came after she tried to wean her daughter. “It seemed to me she had obvious digestive problems when we tried her on milk,” she says. The CDC maintains that raw milk has no health benefits over pasteurized milk, but that’s not what Reitzig saw. “We tried some other options, and as soon as we tried her on raw milk, her digestive problems cleared up,” she says. “It’s been a consistent part of our diet since.”

Today Reitzig leads the raw-milk advocacy group Maryland Independent Consumers and Farmers Association along with the online Grassfed on the Hill, the group linked to last week’s raw milk bust. Her interest in raw milk has expanded from trying to clear up her daughter’s digestive trouble to defending her right to feed her family what she wants.

“It’s kind of a way of government sidelining people,” she says of both raw-milk bans, not to mention compulsory vaccinations. “So many of these things are coerced or forced. It’s not so much an anti-government thing as an anti-government force thing.” .

Not all raw-milk proponents walk that diplomatic of a line.

Sally Fallon Morell of the Weston A. Price Foundation has no problem calling the government’s stance on raw milk a conspiracy.

“The FDA is in bed with the pharmaceutical industry and commodity agriculture,” she says. “There’s a huge economic incentive.” Morell draws much of her conviction from the testimony of people who switch to raw milk. “We have a lot of mothers making raw milk baby formula,” she says. “People get better when they drink raw milk. It gives a child everything they need.”

Elaine Lidholm, spokesperson for the Virginia Dept. of Agriculture and Consumer Services, finds the idea of baby being given raw milk horrifying. “I can’t imagine,” she says.

Lidholm, along with Laurie Bucher of the Maryland Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene, supports the views of the FDA and the CDC, which is that the consumption of raw milk is dangerous. CDC figures put the number of raw-milk incidents between 1998 and 2008 at 85 outbreaks, 1,676 reported illnesses, 191 hospitalizations and two deaths. Germs that can be found in raw milk include bacteria like Listeria and Salmonella, plus parasites and viruses. Infants, the elderly, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems are the most vulnerable to raw milk’s potential hazards.

Among the medical and scientific organizations that support pasteurization of all milk: American Academy of Pediatrics, American Veterinary Medical Association, and the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians. The CDC’s website states that there are no health benefits to drinking raw milk; that raw milk does not cure any diseases, like allergies or asthma; and that it doesn’t matter if a farmer uses grass-fed cows or organic practices.

Yet people continue to consume raw milk, and with increasing voracity according to raw-milk proponents. Morell doesn’t think much of the CDC’s information or scientists.

“They are extremely sloppy,” she says. As for figures about raw-milk illnesses, she claims that “most of those are attributed, not proven.”

“We’ve looked at the reports,” Morell says. “Most of them were highly biased.” She does not believe that a single death can be properly attributed to raw milk consumption.

When asked if she thinks she sounds like someone who clings to the belief that vaccinations cause autism, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, Morell responds that she is “opposed to childhood vaccinations.”

Morell is hardly alone in her fervent support of raw milk. Pete Kennedy, attorney for the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, drinks it (“good raw milk tastes like ice cream without the sugar”) and calls Virginia’s law against its sale “dysfunctional.” He takes more of an economic approach.

“What states have done,” he says, is create “a bonanza for Pennsylvania farmers. They could have been supporting their own dairy industry.”

Currently the CDC puts the percentage of the population that drinks raw milk at 1-3 percent, but the number of people buying raw milk across state lines or of farmers selling it illegally in the region is difficult to quantify, given the secrecy of much of the sales. Two people involved with the raw milk industry interviewed for this story declined to give their names; one agreed to speak only by email and did not reveal even his or her gender. But both say interest in raw milk is soaring.

As the unnamed, non-gendered participant explains, Virginians can participate in so-called “food clubs” to get access to raw milk. “A food club is basically a group of folks obtaining food from a farmer, organized by volunteers who help coordinate the deliveries,” the person writes. A member can submit a request for food after establishing a relationship with the farmer. “Our farmer does not sell raw milk to any of his members, nor are we buying it from him. As members of a private food club, we donate to him in order to help with the maintenance and care of his animals.”

The person says that the club formed four years ago with about 20 people. Today there are more than 200 members. Liz Reitzig says her food group started with 15 five or six years ago and now numbers in the thousands.

Laurie Bucher of the Maryland Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene says she can’t put a number to the interest in raw milk in the state but explains that the office fields frequent inquiries about its stance from proponents.

“They come and they talk to us,” she says. “We’re not afraid to talk to them. They know our position. It’s very clear.” Bucher adds that children are a big part of the equation. “We have to look out for the whole population,” she says. “Kids don’t have a choice. That’s what we have to look out for.”

Reitzig calls that argument “bullshit.”

“Parents are responsible for their children,” she says heatedly. “We make the decisions about everything. They don’t have a choice about anything. The point is not having someone else micromanage me and how I raise my children.” Her children have never suffered ill effects from raw milk, Reitzig says.

This is the impasse of the raw-milk debate. Health officials say it’s bad, but proponents point to their healthy, raw-milk-fed kids. One argues science; the other argues personal freedom (though proponents like Morell also claim to have science on their side).

Lidholm says there’s no changing the minds of proponents. “We can say to them it is illegal to sell raw milk for human consumption in Virginia,” she says. “Period. We are not here to change people’s minds. We’re here to protect public health.”

She says the same people regularly come before the Board of Agriculture and Consumer Services to lobby for legalizing raw milk. “They’re the same people who think home kitchens shouldn’t be inspected,” she says. “They’re the same people who think government is out to get them. They’re the same people who think we’re trying to run small farms out of business, nevermind that small farms are the backbone of Virginia agriculture.”

Lidholm sees a silver lining in the controversy. “That’s part of what makes us America, because people can voice other opinions,” she says. She adds, “But here in Virginia, they haven’t had a lot of luck getting their legislation passed.”

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