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Raw milk fans cheer looser state laws. Doctors say bad 'moove'

The closest most of us ever get to a dairy cow is through that carton of pasteurized milk we keep in our refrigerators.
/ Source: TODAY

The closest most of us ever get to a dairy cow is through that carton of pasteurized milk we keep in our refrigerators. But a growing number of raw-food enthusiasts who prefer their milk straight from the udder, are getting easier access with the passage of new state-by-state legislation.

Hedgebrook Farm, which offers cow sharing for people who want raw milk.
Hedgebrook Farm, which offers cow sharing for people who want raw milk.Kimberly Hartke

This past week, West Virginia — which, like many states, bans the direct-to-consumer sales of raw milk —joined other states in a growing movement called herd sharing, which allows citizens of the state to sign a contract with a farmer, buy shares of a cow, and then to pay the farmer to care for the animals and milk them. These shareholders then get the milk in all its raw glory.

It’s a big change, especially since West Virginia had a stringent statewide policy prohibiting raw milk sales. Also this week, state agriculture officials in Maine, which already allow direct-to-consumer sale of raw milk by licensed farmers, proposed loosening some requirements.

For advocacy groups that believe raw milk offers not only great taste but also numerous health benefits that pasteurization destroys, the West Virginia decision is a step in the right direction.

“A lot of states are looking at raw milk sales in one way or another, including herdshares, which are sometimes called cowshares,” says Pete Kennedy, president of the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, a group which opposes the ban against interstate sale of raw milk. “But it’s tough trying to get legal or expanded access to (raw) milk for people who want it, and state by state, it can get a little crazy.”

That’s because back in the late 1980s, the Food and Drug Administration prohibited the distribution of raw milk across state lines for direct sale to consumers. But the U.S. can’t halt products being made within a state to be sold inside that state. That's led to a patchwork of state laws governing the sale of raw milk.

In California, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, among other states, you can buy raw milk straight from a retail shelf or farmer’s market, according to the advocacy group. But in New York and Massachusetts, for example, you have to go to a licensed farm to buy raw milk. In Illinois and Kansas you can buy from an unlicensed farm, but if you live in Florida, you can’t buy it at all, unless it’s for your pet.

If you live in Ohio, Arkansas, Michigan and a handful of other states, you can go buy a share of a cow. In West Virginia, cow-sharers must also fill out a form acknowledging they know about the health risks of raw milk, and doctors must report any illnesses caused by the product.

Whoever thought milk would cause consternation among legislators and bring the scientific and medical community out in force to warn consumers about the dangers of drinking the non-pasteurized variety?

After all, pasteurization — the process of heating milk to reduce milk-borne illnesses — has been around since the 19th century. And in the early part of the 20th century, pasteurization, along with better dairy management practices, was credited with nearly eliminating milk-borne diseases like typhoid fever and scarlet fever.

Currently, the FDA, the World Health Organization, American Medical Association, American Veterinary Association, International Association for Food Protection, and the National Environmental Health Association advise against drinking raw milk, as does the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“People want to be more responsible for their sustainable environment and what they are putting into their bodies but they conflate the two issues because natural doesn’t always equal healthy,” says Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, professor of pediatrics at the Stanford University School of Medicine and lead author of the American Academy of Pediatric position statement on raw milk.

The dairy industry worries that illnesses from raw milk sales could damage public confidence in the safety of dairy products.

In a statement to West Virginia legislators, the association outlined its opposition to the cow sharing law: "Legalizing and regulating the sale of raw milk sends a signal to consumers that drinking unpasteurized milk is safe when, in fact, the opposite is true. Nationally, our dairy industry benefits from a very high degree of consumer confidence — confidence built in large part due to the excellent food safety record of milk and dairy products."

While it’s clear the natural world isn’t always our best friend, some argue that adults have the right to take the risk when it comes to raw milk consumption.

“Adults drive, cliff dive and smoke, but they have to be informed about risks,” says bioethicist Arthur Caplan, head of the Division of Medical Ethics, at New York University. “The ethical considerations become much more difficult when kids are involved,” says Caplan, a contributor to NBC News.

Indeed, between 1998 and 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reported:

  • 79 percent of reported food-borne illnesses were due to raw milk or cheese.
  • From 1998 through 2011, there were 148 outbreaks due to consumption of raw milk or raw milk products that were reported to CDC.
  • These resulted in 2,384 illnesses, 284 hospitalizations, and 2 deaths.

Most of these illnesses were caused by Escherichia coli, Campylobacter, Salmonella, or Listeria. Much of the raw milk-associated disease burden falls on children. Among the 104 outbreaks from 1998-2011, 82 percent involved at least one person younger than 20 years old, according to the CDC.

“Our recommendations are evidence-based and there is no scientific evidence that drinking raw milk is better than drinking pasteurized milk and milk products,” says Maldonado, an infectious disease expert and pediatrician at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. “But we do see a very large number of diseases and illnesses from raw milk and raw milk products and the infections can be just horrible,” causing diarrhea, fever, cramps, nausea and vomiting, and some may even become systemic.

A small, but growing number of raw milk lovers get it from a cow they share.

Hedgebrook Farm cows, where Kimberly Hartke has a cow share.
Hedgebrook Farm cows, where Kimberly Hartke has a cow share.Kimberly Hartke

Among them are Kim Hartke, a publicist for A Campaign for Real Milk, a project of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nutrition education group and leading proponent of raw milk consumption.

Hartke owns 2/26th of cow named Aster, which lives about an hour away from her Reston, Virginia home. Those “shares” allows Hartke to get two gallons of raw milk a week delivered to her home. The cost, after her initial investment, works out to about $16.00 a gallon (compared to a national average of $3.67 per gallon of regular milk, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), which includes delivery and a monthly boarding fee for Aster. In Virginia, it’s illegal to buy and sell raw milk, but there's no law on the books about cowshares.

Hartke believes the price-per-gallon she pays is money well spent, insisting that raw milk, along with other lifestyle changes, such as exercise, helped with her severe knee problems.

“I’m a big proponent of raw dairy because of what it’s done for my health, but you can’t push people into it,” Hartke says. “It’s not for everybody.”

In 2010 about 3 percent of the U.S. population were raw milk devotees, according to advocacy group estimates. Sales of raw milk increased 25 percent in California in 2010, while sales of pasteurized milk declined 3 percent, according to the Weston A. Price Foundation.

Food safety experts warn that access, minus pasteurization, could equal contamination from numerous sources including the cow’s udders and cross-contamination with humans.

“I grew up on a dairy farm and anytime you start milking a cow I will tell you they start defecating, and it can get everywhere,” says Dr. Faith Critzer, a food microbiologist with the University of Tennessee and a food safety extension specialist for the state of Tennessee. “There are just too many points of contamination and pasteurization will get rid of contamination. It will save your life.”

In Tennessee, where people can buy cowshares, getting the message out about raw milk risks can be an “uphill climb,” she says.

“These are educated people and getting some to change their minds about raw milk is difficult,” she says. “But when things go wrong (with raw milk), they can go terribly wrong.”

Things can go wrong with many foods, however, including those of the pasteurized variety. Iconic ice cream maker Blue Bell announced a recall on Friday after the deaths of three people who had developed a food-borne illness linked to the company's ice cream products.

This article was originally published Mar. 16, 2015 at 11:27 a.m. ET.