Unpasteurized milk: God-given right, economic boon, or public health hazard?
Written by Shay Maunz
On April 1 of this year, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin signed a veto letter killing Senate Bill 30, saying it “posed a serious risk to public health.” The Legislature thought otherwise. Lawmakers had passed the bill days earlier with overwhelming support—96 voted for it and only 30 against.
The backlash to the veto was swift and intense. Within days, some two dozen protesters organized an assembly at the Capitol, where they held signs and chanted about freedom. Republican legislators quickly published news releases and gave interviews in the local press decrying Tomblin’s decision. Not surprisingly, commentary was especially impassioned online, where critics took to Facebook and the comments sections of TV news websites to say their pieces. One commenter called the governor a “scumbag.” Another wrote, “WV: Come to your senses and stop electing these ignorant corporate pawns.” A Facebook user called the veto “the demonization of nutrition.”
And what could have inspired all this activism, passion, and vitriol? What’s the potent mix of anti-government sentiment, health consciousness, and self-righteousness behind all this? It could only be one thing: milk.
Or more specifically, raw milk. That is, milk that hasn’t been pasteurized, heated to 161 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 seconds to ensure it doesn’t contain harmful bacteria. Right now it’s illegal to buy or sell raw milk in West Virginia, though you’re still free to drink it as long as the milk comes from a cow you own yourself. Senate Bill 30 would have made it possible for people to get raw milk through a workaround known as a “herd share agreement”—where a consumer buys a share of a herd of cattle, helps pay a farmer for the cows’ care, and in return receives a portion of the raw milk the animals produce.
Raw milk enthusiasts say it’s healthier, tastier, and more natural than the pasteurized stuff you buy in a grocery store. They say laws forbidding consumers from buying raw milk are just an arm of the nanny state and a threat to personal freedom. Government health organizations say the threat of contamination in raw milk makes it dangerous enough to be considered a public health hazard.
So yeah, there’s a lot of disagreement about raw milk in West Virginia right now. But we do know one thing for sure: This issue isn’t going anywhere. “I’d all but guarantee it will be back during this next legislative session,” says Senator Daniel Hall, who was the lead sponsor on Senate Bill 30 last year.
When Carrie Dunham’s first son was about a year old, she started looking for a place to buy goat’s milk. He’d been colicky as a newborn so she took him off milk completely, but was now ready to gradually reintroduce him to it. The only source she could find was a farm in Pennsylvania that sold the stuff raw. “When I started giving him goat’s milk I was actually pasteurizing it myself at home, because you just hear that it’s unsafe,” she says.
But Dunham is interested in foods that are as natural and unprocessed as possible—organic produce, farm-to-table beef, no genetically modified anything— and is generally mistrustful of government regulations. So she started doing her own research about raw milk, and liked what she found. Proponents say raw milk is higher in nutritional content than pasteurized milk, that it’s easier on the digestive tract, and that drinking raw milk as a child protects against allergies and asthma. “After that I just went straight raw,” she says. Now she, her husband, and their three kids each drink at least one glass a day, and it’s usually more like two. She drives 45 minutes from her home in Martinsburg into Pennsylvania to stock up every week or so. “If we can’t get our raw milk we won’t drink pasteurized milk,” she says. “We just go without until we can get raw.”
“We drink it as much as we drink water,” says Katie Trenary, of Inwood. “I mean, we drink it all day.” Trenary and her family started drinking raw milk last year, when she was pregnant with her fifth child. She’s friends with Dunham, was intrigued by her Facebook posts about it, and decided to do her own research. “After I read the CDC and FDA warnings, obviously I was mortified,” she says. “I don’t want to kill my kids.” But she did more research and was persuaded by raw milk advocates. She doesn’t take much stock in government warnings, anyway. “I’m definitely interested in things that the government warns us against,” she says. “I think they are so greedy and money hungry that they are going to do whatever they can to have us not go the natural way, the free way. The government saying not to do this just made me want to try it.”
So, legal or not, there are people in West Virginia who drink raw milk. “There’s like a secret society,” Trenary says. “There are so many people, and everybody’s scared to talk about it, but I know so many families who drink it or who want to.” Some of them get it legally, from cows they own themselves, or by driving across state lines. “It would be wonderful for me to not have to buy it from Pennsylvania,” Dunham says. “I’d rather give my neighbor here my seven dollars than someone there.” Others quietly buy or trade with neighbors or friends to get raw milk—sales that aren’t exactly legal and aren’t regulated at all. Maria Moles, who has a small farm in Clay County, refuses to sell raw milk under the table—but it has been an exercise of her willpower. “I’ve got people interested that I have to turn down,” she says. “I could sell it, I could barter it. I’ve had people offer me so many different things in exchange for milk.”
In the end, Moles always says no—she wants to run an honest business. But she does worry about the alternative sources people find to buy their milk. With no regulations to keep farms and farmers honest, consumers have only faith to assure them raw milk is safe. Some raw milk advocates have even argued legalizing raw milk sales would actually decrease the public health risk, if the law included mandatory regular testing of animals and the milk supply. “West Virginia needs a better economy and right here is a way to do it,” Moles says. “Let’s capitalize on something that is already happening and get it done safely and responsibly.”
Before pasteurization was invented getting sick from milk was commonplace. Tuberculosis, scarlet fever, typhoid, diphtheria, and anthrax were all known to be milk-borne diseases, and thousands of people contracted these diseases each year. But the introduction of pasteurization in the 19th century, and its widespread adoption in the 20th, was hailed as a public health miracle. Milk quickly became one of the safest things people could drink, and the infant mortality rate plummeted.
But as modern consumers have again gravitated toward raw milk, milk-borne illness is making a similar comeback. Between 2007 and 2012, the average number of disease outbreaks related to raw milk was four times as high as it was between 1992 and 2006.
Government health organizations do give dire warnings about raw milk. All of them—from the FDA to the CDC to the American Academy of Pediatrics—agree it’s unsafe because unpasteurized milk can contain pathogens that cause diseases, like E. coli, listeria, and salmonella. Between 1987 and 2010, public health authorities attributed 133 outbreaks of disease to raw milk, resulting in around 2,700 cases of illness, 270 hospitalizations, three deaths, six stillbirths, and two miscarriages. Officials say those numbers are probably conservative, since a lot of foodborne illnesses go unreported.
Mainstream health experts warn that raw milk is especially dangerous for children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems—which is particularly scary, since many raw milk enthusiasts advocate giving it to children and babies to ward off allergies and disease.
And all those claims that raw milk is healthier? There’s little evidence to support them. The CDC warns that a 2007 study has been misused by raw milk advocates since the beginning: While the study found a correlation between farm milk and lower rates of allergies and asthma, half of the milk used in the study was, in fact, pasteurized. Plus, the CDC says, raw milk can make kids seriously ill or even kill them—is it really worth the risk just to try to prevent allergies? Overall, raw milk is 150 times more likely to cause an outbreak than milk that’s been pasteurized.
Yet more and more states have begun legalizing raw milk sales, bowing to public pressure. West Virginia is one of only nine states that still outlaws it completely; in a few states it can be sold only as pet food, or there are no laws on the books about it at all.
Moles has no interest in drinking raw milk—she’s allergic to milk of all kinds—but she’s still desperate for raw milk sales to be legal in West Virginia. “I’m using thousands and thousands of dollars worth of milk as pig slop every year,” she says. Moles owns two dairy cows that each produce more than 10 gallons of milk a day. If she could sell that milk raw for the going rate— somewhere between $6 and $10 a gallon—it would be huge for her small family farm in Clay County. “Oh my goodness, if I had the opportunity to sell milk at $6 a gallon I could expand my farm,” she says. “I’d double my herd. I’d raise more pigs, more calves, more everything.”
This might be the most convincing argument for legalizing raw milk in West Virginia. “This is an agricultural product and there is a legitimate business interest in it,” Senator Hall says. “We’re always talking about how bad our economy is and obviously raw milk will not be the savior for our economy—but it’s one thing that could help.” Hall thinks with this in mind, he and other legislators will work during the 2016 session to draft a raw milk bill that is more palatable for Governor Tomblin.
The legislation likely would include provisions for additional testing and oversight and would find a way to make herd share agreements—or maybe even retail sales of raw milk—legal. “I want to stress that we have no interest in killing our population,” Hall says. “I shouldn’t have to say that, but I feel like I need to. We want to do this responsibly, and I think there is a way to craft a bill that does that and satisfies every party.”