Farming Magazine - June, 2010

FEATURES

A Raw Deal?

The raw milk controversy continues
By John Hibma
About 75 to 80 percent of the milk produced by Cliff Hatch’s 15 or so Ayrshires is sold as whole milk with the rest going into cheese.
Photos by John S. Hibma.

Safety concerns over the drinking of raw milk and consuming products made from raw milk have been around for many decades. Both the proponents and opponents of raw milk consumption continue to make a case for their side of the issue, and both sides have valid points.

Those acquainted in any way at all with agriculture in general, and dairying in particular, know the risks associated with the consumption of raw milk. It’s certainly no secret that milk, when not properly handled, can harbor dangerous pathogens that can quickly and seriously sicken us. However, many continue to ask for and consume raw milk. Ironically, “buyer beware” is a great concept until it happens to us.

In spite of the risks, for many, the consumption of raw milk and its products represents a basic tenant of healthy eating and consumer rights. Their lifestyles and values include consuming foods that are “natural” and free from real or perceived potential adulterations—those contaminations or compromises coming from modern commercial agriculture. Even though the pasteurization of milk is the accepted norm for the vast majority of the dairy industry, there’s an increasing percentage of the population that are willing to accept the potential risks that are inherent with the consumption of raw milk.

The controversy over the consumption of raw milk is just one facet of the much larger issue of food safety. Our modern-day, litigious-obsessed (someone’s going to pay for this) society demands that food must be completely safe. Not just some of the time, but all of the time. Contamination of food in any way, shape or form is not to be tolerated. Today, safe food at every level is regarded as a nonnegotiable entitlement. Food is basic for survival of our species, so to compromise its value, its nutrition or its safety is considered, at the very least, to be irresponsible and irrational and now, more than ever, criminal.

At the center of the raw milk controversy is cleanliness. The pasteurization process has been the means by which the greater public can be assured that milk is safe to drink ever since Louis Pasteur discovered, in the 19th century, that heating milk to a high enough temperature would kill most of the bacteria. This was done in the days prior to the invention of refrigeration when little was known about pathogens that made people sick. Now, in order to protect ourselves from ourselves, pasteurization of dairy products is mandated by law in most civilized countries.

Cliff Hatch at his Upingill Dairy in Gill, Mass.

Raw milk has been proven to be safe, as long at is has been produced and stored under rigid standards of cleanliness.

In the U.S., there are 28 states that allow the consumption or sale of raw milk. However, there are restrictions and differing regulations in each of those states. A number of states have pending legislation regarding raw milk usage (see sidebar).

There are essentially three areas where consumers can get into trouble with raw milk. First, the animal from which the milk comes from must be healthy with no mastitis. Second, the cow’s udder and all the milking equipment must be completely free of dirt, manure or other contaminants. Third, the milk must be quickly refrigerated and bottled in an aseptic environment. Truth be told, this is often difficult to accomplish day in and day out at even the best dairies or processing plants. The production and processing of milk should ideally occur in sterile conditions, and we all know that the logistics and work schedules of a typical dairy farm make it impossible to do that. The consumer must understand that milk is not produced in conditions similar to that of a hospital operating room.

The state of Connecticut allows the sale of raw milk at retail outlets and at the farm. In 2009, there was an attempt in the state legislature to prohibit raw milk from being sold from retail stores after an unfortunate incident the previous year of illness being attributed to raw milk produced in Simsbury, Conn. Opponents to raw milk saw this as an opportunity to move towards prohibiting raw milk consumption in the state. Supportive dairy producers and consumers, however, mounted a grassroots effort to halt the proposed legislation and were successful in seeing the bill die in committee.

Melynda Naples at her Deerfield Farm in Durham, Conn., with Gabby, left, and Reba.

Melynda Naples, a dairy farmer in Durham, Conn., milks about 20 Jerseys and has been selling raw milk to local retail outlets, at farmers’ markets and from her dairy farm since 2006. She said that, for the time being, opposition to raw milk has quieted down. She’s been instrumental in the creation of an industry advocacy group called the Farmstead Dairy Alliance of Connecticut (FDAC). Once the FDAC is formed, the raw milk producers and other producers of farmstead dairy products will have a lobbyist available to more closely monitor legislation and controversies involving farmstead dairy products. The FDAC will enable producers to establish and maintain a dialogue with regulatory agencies and professionals in the field of milk quality and food safety.

Naples is very much in favor of more stringent milk testing, and she and other producers are working on acquiring a grant that would enable them to handle the additional costs associated with the increased testing. Additional testing of raw milk would help with the credibility of the product, providing more information as to its safety and making that industry more transparent.

She stressed that the purpose for additional testing is not to elevate raw milk to the level of “a cure-all” that some proponents would like to see. Additional testing is meant to more solidly establish the safety of raw milk in its unpasteurized state. Raw milk, when produced and handled carefully, is every bit as safe as pasteurized.

One thing that’s for certain, though, is smaller dairies using tie stalls or pasturing cows much of the year have a greater chance in succeeding with producing and selling raw milk. Larger dairy farms with hundreds of cows in free-stall type housing are much more challenged in keeping cows clean and milk bacteria-free. While this in no way is meant to suggest that milk from larger dairies is in any way inferior in quality or healthfulness, the potential for contamination is always greater the larger the dairy farm becomes and, therefore, the need for pasteurization is much more necessary.

Dairy farmers who produce and sell raw milk have a vested interest in the integrity and quality of their product. Given the negative sentiment and health concerns for raw milk, there’s a lot at stake from a legal point of view, if nothing else. Naples stated that she wouldn’t be feeding raw milk to her children, who are 2 and 3 years old, if she didn’t believe in the safety of the product. People who come looking for raw milk understand what they’re getting and, once they are confident in the quality of the product and the integrity of the farmer, they will keep coming back for more.

While Naples doesn’t subscribe to the idea that raw milk has “miracle-cure” properties, she is a firm believer that raw milk has some definite health benefits for some people with chronic digestive and intestinal problems. Good bacteria, known as probiotics, can help with digestion much in the same way that yogurt does. Some of the beneficial bacteria found in milk are destroyed during the pasteurizing process. Other people who have difficulty digesting pasteurized milk have found they have no problem digesting raw milk because more of the enzymes are still intact.

The issue of raw milk safety also includes cheese making. Currently, the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) allows only aged cheeses to be made from raw milk, and those cheeses must be aged a minimum of 60 days before being made available to the public.

Liz MacAlister and her son, Mark Gilman, milk about 35 Jerseys in Colchester, Conn., and produce aged, raw milk cheeses that are marketed almost exclusively at farmers’ markets in New York City. MacAlister, who has been making her award-winning European-style aged cheeses since 1997, points out that the FDA has a long-term goal of prohibiting all raw milk dairy products in the U.S. Due to the perceived risks from anything made from raw milk, FDA’s approach is to prohibit raw milk in its entirety.

According to a March 30th article in the Wall Street Journal, a federal microbiology advisory committee has raised questions about whether 60 days of aging is sufficient to kill pathogens, as long believed.

Dr. Catherine Donnelly is associate director of the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese and has conducted extensive research into the food-borne pathogenic bacteria and food safety associated with aged raw milk cheeses. According to Donnelly, for the most part, the 60-day rule has been protective of public health in the U.S., and there have been very few cheese-related illnesses. She stresses that the 60-day rule doesn’t work for all cheeses and must be applied on the basis of the type of cheese being made and the specific manufacturing parameters involved in the making of raw milk cheeses. Cheese making is complicated, and cheeses are not created equally.

The 60-day aging rule does not work for the fresh, high-moisture cheeses, especially those that are produced and distributed illegally. Pathogenic contamination in those cheeses comes as the result of unsanitary conditions during the making of the cheese. Listeriosis, for example, is an environmental pathogen that contaminates cheese through equipment or handling after it’s been made. Raw milk, by itself, cannot be blamed on an outbreak of listeriosis. Even cheese made from pasteurized milk can be contaminated with environmental pathogens.

For fresh raw milk cheeses, aging is inappropriate and actually may increase the risk of harmful bacterial growth. For soft cheeses, the pH (a measure of acidity) will increase (become more alkali), which creates a more favorable environment for the growth of pathogens. Fresh cheeses are safer when they are young. In France, the sale of soft cheese is prohibited after 57 days due to that risk. Making soft cheeses with raw milk requires a much more stringent process of risk reduction practices, including frequent testing of milk and curd and extremely high levels of sanitation.

According to Donnelly, hard cheeses are served well by the 60-day aging process, which does eliminate pathogens. The characteristics of the cheeses have a large influence on the inherent risk of contamination and whether aging is appropriate. For example, in the case of Parmesan, Reggiano and Swiss-style cheeses, the curds are cooked at a temperature well beyond the pasteurization process and enough moisture is removed resulting in an environment that is very hostile to pathogens. The process in itself takes care of a lot of the problems. In the case of cheddar cheese making, which doesn’t cook the curd at such high temperatures, salt is added, and the acidity (lower ph level) that develops as it matures creates enough hurdles that reduce the chances of survival of the pathogens.

Donnelly also noted that there have been many microbiological tests done on the raw milk produced in Vermont revealing that milk to be very low in pathogens and bacteria. This lends more credence, again, to the fact that artisan cheese makers go to great lengths to assure the quality of the raw milk they produce. On many farms the milk isn’t even held in a bulk storage tank. It’s immediately sent to the cheese vat, which again minimizes the risk of contamination.

For many raw milk producers and consumers it’s not just about having the freedom of choice to consume raw milk and raw milk products, nor is it just the belief in the healthy attributes of raw milk. It’s also about supporting the small farmers and their lifestyles, connections and commitments to sustainable agriculture.

In rural northern Massachusetts, Clifford Hatch and his family have been producing and selling raw milk and raw milk cheeses since 2005. Hatch was raised on a dairy farm and after years of being away from agriculture, working as a chef and cheese maker, returned to dairy farming. He purchased a farm with the intention of having a few cows that would produce milk for his family. Word soon got around that he had fresh milk, people started requesting it and, after obtaining the necessary permits and licenses, he began selling his milk and cheese from the farm. About 75 to 80 percent of the milk produced by his 15 or so Ayrshires is sold as whole milk with the rest going into cheese. Hatch has no problem selling everything that he produces.

Like so many dairy farmers who believe in the integrity of their product and work hard to ensure its safety, Hatch believes the FDA’s attempts to prohibit raw milk consumption is unfounded and misguided: “The FDA is missing the point that the modern dairy industry doesn’t produce milk the way it did 100 years ago. Modern dairy farming utilizes refrigeration and sanitation that didn’t exist back then. Cow care and health is much better that it was back then. The dairy farm producing for the raw milk market pays much more attention to quality control and knows that it must be held to a much higher standard.”

There is a large, untapped market waiting for artisanal products made from raw milk. In spite of the all the negative publicity about the dangers and risks of drinking raw milk and raw milk products, there continues to be many people who believe in the product and will drive many miles to purchase it and pay the extra money for it. They support the products and, in doing so, they support the farmer who’s trying to make a living, keeping agriculture from becoming just another U.S. industry that has been outsourced to a foreign country.

Northeast States and Their Raw Milk Regulatory Status

www.nasda.org

Connecticut
Raw milk sales are legal on the farm and in retail stores. In order to operate legally, farmers must obtain producer permits and raw milk retailer permits from the state agriculture commissioner. Additionally, they must obtain a milk dealer license from the public health board of the town or city where their farms are located.

Maine
Raw milk sales are legal on the farm and in retail stores. Raw milk and raw milk products must have a label on the product containing the words “not pasteurized.” Farmers do not have to obtain a permit to sell raw milk if their sales are only on the farm and they do not advertise.

Massachusetts
The state legislature has granted the power to city and town boards of health to determine whether raw milk sales are legal. If the local board of health makes raw milk sales legal, farmers must follow state regulations on the production and sale of raw milk.

New Hampshire
Raw milk can be purchased legally on the farm, through home delivery or through the final consumer purchasing directly from a milk pasteurization plant. Boarding houses can offer raw milk provided that the milk is produced on the premises and the boarding house dining room displays a sign stating that raw milk is served therein.

Rhode Island
Raw milk sales are illegal with one exception: An individual may purchase raw goat milk from a producer if that person has a written, signed prescription from a physician. According to the state department of health, no one has ever taken advantage of this provision in the law.

Vermont
Raw milk is legal through a tiered regulatory system that is defined by the quantity of milk being sold. Tier 1 producers can sell up to 50 quarts (12.5 gallons) per day from the farm, and Tier 2 producers can sell up to 40 gallons per day between on-farm sales and home delivery to prepaid customers.

New York
Raw milk sales are legal on the farm. The farmer must have a license from the state department of agriculture and markets. The farmer must post a sign at the point of sale that states, “Notice: Raw milk sold here. Raw milk does not provide the protection of pasteurization.” Raw milk vendors can only sell to consumers.

Pennsylvania
Raw milk sales are legal on the farm and in retail stores. Raw milk for retail producers must have a permit and can only sell to stores if they have their own packaging operation with labeling and bottling machines. Stores purchasing raw milk from farmers for resale do not ordinarily need a permit. Producers selling raw milk only on the farm do not need bottling equipment because the state permits customers to bring their own containers.

The author is a dairy nutritional consultant and works for Central Connecticut Farmer’s Cooperative in Manchester, Conn.