The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and several state governments are clashing with consumers seeking to purchase an illicit substance they say they just can’t live without: Raw milk.
Unpasteurized, nonhomogenized, raw milk is illegal to sell for human consumption in North Carolina and 24 other states. The FDA says drinking it is like “playing Russian roulette,” and the state epidemiologist compares it to “heroin” and “mercury.” But proponents say pasteurization kills good bacteria, destroys enzymes necessary for absorbing vitamins and minerals, and denatures fragile proteins. And some are prepared to go to court to protect what they claim is a right to consume raw milk.
Black Market Milk?
Laura, a mother of four who does not want her last name published, started feeding her family raw milk 10 years ago in South Carolina, where it is legal. She got a tip that it might help her daughter, who suffered from lactose intolerance and irritable bowel syndrome.
After a few days on raw goat’s milk, Laura said, all of her daughter’s symptoms disappeared. Not only could she digest the raw milk, soon she also could digest small amounts of pasteurized milk products. Laura attributes this to the enzyme lactase, which helps break down lactose and is killed during pasteurization.
When Laura moved to North Carolina, securing what she calls “real” milk got tricky. At first she made 10-hour round trips to her friend’s farm in South Carolina every three months, loading her van with gallons of frozen milk. Later she bought her own goats, which she kept on a friend’s land and milked herself, eventually selling them and purchasing “goat shares” instead.
Cow , Goat ‘Shares’ Outlawed
Until 2004 the “cow share” program offered consumers a legal avenue to raw milk through partial ownership of a cow or goat, as there was no law against drinking milk from one’s own animals. People like Laura, who didn’t have the land or time to keep their own animal, paid a farmer to keep it for them in exchange for several gallons of milk each week.
However, North Carolina banned the practice during the 2004 legislative session, in an amendment tacked onto a lengthy environmental bill. In 2007, raw milk activist Ruth Foster, who connects buyers to suppliers in the state, helped then-state Sen. Kay Hagan (now North Carolina’s junior Democratic Senator) draft a bill to reverse the “cow share” ban. It passed the Senate but never made it to the House.
The ban leaves Laura only one legal option for obtaining raw milk: purchasing it under the description of “pet milk.” Farmers can sell raw milk for pet consumption, as long as it is labeled as such and includes the warning “Not for human consumption” in half-inch lettering. But farmers know their customers are not buying several gallons of milk, at $10 to $15 a gallon, for their cats.
The North Carolina Department of Agriculture has pushed back. It adopted a rule in 2007 that would have forced farmers to dye raw milk grey, but Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) wrote a bill that overturned the rule before it went into effect. The Agriculture Department has also tried to force pet-milk producers to register as feed manufacturers, even though there is no law requiring it. The process adds costs and regulatory burdens many small dairy operations can’t afford and simply ignore.
Crackdown on Supply Chain
Because demand is high and supply is low, many travel across state lines to stock up. But state and federal agencies are catching on.
In 2009 a milk-buying club carpooled from Georgia to South Carolina and filled their van with several coolers of raw milk. Little did they know, they were being followed. As soon as they crossed the state line, agents from the Georgia Department of Agriculture and an agent from the FDA pulled them over and forced them to dump 110 gallons on the side of the road.
The Georgia consumers are now plaintiffs—along with consumers from North Carolina, Iowa, and New Jersey—in a lawsuit against the FDA for its interpretation of a federal law that bans the interstate shipment of raw milk.
The plaintiffs say neither they nor the farmers are breaking the law. The milk is sold in a state where it’s legal to sell it, and consumed in a state where it’s legal to consume it. Pete Kennedy, a lawyer from the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, said the plaintiffs are waiting to see if a federal court in Iowa will hear the case.
Milk Underground Grows
North Carolina state epidemiologist Megan Davies said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 85 outbreaks of human infections linked to raw milk between 1998 and 2008, affecting a total of 1,600 people.
“If you develop bloody diarrhea, fever, or severe abdominal cramps, you should see your physician immediately, and if one of your children develops these symptoms, make sure they are tested for E. Coli, which can be fatal,” Davies said.
Yet Foster says the more the government cracks down on raw milk, the more media attention it gets and the more converts it attracts.
“We’re not scared anymore,” she said. “We’re drinking raw milk, and we’re thriving. That’s why people are waking up to it.”
Sara Burrows ([email protected]) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal, where this article was originally published.