Fragrant, raw and often illegal. Try some?
First published here on January 31, 2014
A nervous, awkward man answered my first phone call and barely spoke above a whisper. He told me that if I wanted to submit an order, I could fill out an application online, wait to be approved and then “probably” be worked into the delivery route in Queens.
Several months and many pushy emails later, I was finally approved. I went to Udder Milk’s website and placed an order for a half-gallon of raw cow milk, a half pint of raw goat cheese and a pound of raw, grass-fed cow milk gruyere.
With the click of a button, I was part of a bootleg operation.
A self-described “co-op on wheels,” Udder Milk links customers in search of raw milk to the farmers who provide it. The endeavor is illegal in New York State, where raw milk sales are permitted only on the farm. The penalties for delivering the contraband to New Yorkers’ doorsteps can range from hefty fines to jail time — more than enough to swiftly put a small-scale operation out of business, even when it charges $10 for a gallon of cow’s milk.
On the delivery day, I waited to meet the milkman. A nondescript white van finally rumbled to a stop at the curb and a short man in jeans and a black jacket climbed out. He squinted and scanned the numbers of the apartment buildings, searching for the correct delivery spot, perhaps also making sure nosy neighbors weren’t eyeing his contraband. Spotting my apartment, he gave a curt nod and reached into the back of the van. He pulled out a blue plastic bag, slammed the doors shut, and headed for my front steps.
“Julie?” he asked, squinting up at me.
“Yep, that’s me,” I said in my friendliest voice. I smiled and reached out to take the bags from him.
He narrowed his eyes. “You have ID?”
Milk is milk. Not a big deal, right? But think about the enormous role that milk plays in American food culture, going all the way back to the Pilgrims (see sidebar). In 2005, the United States Department of Agriculture started advising Americans over the age of 8 to consume three cups of dairy products a day, a one-cup increase from the USDA’s previous recommendation. The average American drinks roughly two quarts of milk a week, more than eight quarts per month, 90 quarts a year and nearly 2,000 gallons in a lifetime. In 2011, milk sales in the United States reached their lowest point since 1984, yet U.S. dairies still produced a staggering six billion gallons.
Almost all of this product is pasteurized: heated to a particular temperature for a determined period in order to kill harmful bacteria (but not all bacteria). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration strongly advocates pasteurization, which destroys dangerous bacteria such as salmonella, E. coli and listeria. These harmful cultures are especially dangerous for people with weakened immune systems, older adults, pregnant women, and children, according to official warnings. Pasteurization, says the FDA, “was adopted as a basic public health measure to eliminate the risk of getting sick from one of the most important staples of the American diet.”
These scary warnings do little to deter the growing legions of Americans who prefer unpasteurized, or raw milk. Raw-milk foodies are on a quest to turn the United States into a modern land of milk and honey. They believe unpasteurized milk is a tonic of good bacteria with the power to ward off poor digestion and ill health. The process of pasteurization, devotees argue, robs milk of its natural benefits and destroys delicious flavor variations. Raw milk is richer – 4.8 percent milk fat, compared to the typical 4 percent for whole milk at the supermarket. And it’s more flavorful. Raw milk lovers are as discerning as passionate oenophiles, able to detect scents and tastes indicative of the time of year the cow was milked and what she had for lunch that day.
Of the 25 states in which raw milk is legally available for purchase, 15 allow sales only on the farm where the milk is produced. Illinois and Minnesota require customers to bring their own containers, a process that raises safety questions even among dairy farmers and raw milk advocates. In years past, Kentuckians and Rhode Islanders could get raw goat’s milk with a prescription. My native South Carolina allows the sale of raw milk on and off the farm, if a sales permit is obtained. In the Palmetto state, farmers must provide retail stores with a warning plaque to be displayed in front of the raw milk, a provision that absolves them of responsibility should the drinker fall ill. But in 10 states (Nevada, Montana, Iowa, Louisiana, West Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Hawaii) plus the District of Columbia, raw milk sales are banned across the board.
In many places, unpasteurized dairy is this generation’s bootleg liquor, and some governments treat it accordingly.
The real problem is that even in states where raw milk is quasi-legal, the stuff is just hard to get. In many places, unpasteurized dairy is this generation’s bootleg liquor, and some governments treat it accordingly. Dairies and cheese makers have been fined and jailed, lawyers called to arms. In Washington State, a federal judge ordered the award-winning Estrella Family Creamery to stop importing bacteria cultures across the state lines for its unpasteurized products. In South Dakota, the state ordered the Belle Fourche Dairy to stop selling raw milk, forcing owner Dawn Habeck to throw out more than 500 gallons.
Raw-milk dairy farmers are fighting back, and have their own champion. The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, a non-profit organization, works to make it more difficult for the government to win what the fund calls “wars of attrition.” In 2012, the fund negotiated on behalf of members Armand and Teddi Bechard to enable the duo to produce raw milk on their farm in Missouri, saw Alvin Schlangen acquitted of criminal charges for alleged violations of the state food and dairy code, and challenged the legality of the interstate ban on raw milk for human consumption.
Raw milk is worth a fight against the government, according to devotees. Believers preach that processing of any kind robs milk of the vitamins and minerals that make it an essential food. Packed with protein, calcium and vitamin D, raw milk is the gateway to a healthy nervous system and strong bones, muscles and heart. The helpful bacteria and enzymes in unpasteurized milk move things along in the digestive tract, breaking down protein and transforming lactose into lactic acid. The lactic acid boosts the body’s absorption of iron and phosphorus, needed to build strong bones and teeth, helps the muscles store and use oxygen, and enables the body to absorb vitamin B. When milk is heated to 165 degrees Fahrenheit for pasteurization, the enzymes and bacteria that enable this mineral absorption lose their punch or are destroyed entirely, according to raw-milk purists.
I wasn’t a total stranger to raw milk products. Four years as an undergraduate French major taught me the joys of oozing, smelly Camembert that hadn’t been chemically treated to within an inch of its life. Still, I was never completely at ease with France’s untreated cheeses, natural butters and fresh milk. Even as I nibbled on that delicious chêvre, I was gripped with fear that within two hours I’d be sick.
After all, the U.S. federal government flatly insists that there are no proven benefits to drinking raw milk. The FDA rejects even the notion that raw milk kills pathogens. “In fact, raw milk potentially harbors a wide range of dangerous pathogens that can cause illness,” the FDA’s website says. And this is one of the agency’s milder warnings.
Life in France, turns out, is pretty good preparation for the American milk debate. The French have their wines, and America’s raw-milk foodies foster their own kind of snob appeal. Different milks reflect the genetics, feeding, environment and a host of other factors that affect the health and milk of the animal. Raw milk devotees appreciate this nuance. They can tell the difference between summer milk, which comes from cows feeding on lush, green pastures, and winter milk from animals that are fed mostly hay. Having circumvented the process that renders most American milk flavorless and indistinguishable, there is a lot more room for variety and flavor. Grass-fed jerseys, for instance, are said to give milk with a sweet flavor. But even within one breed and pasture, each individual animal can give milk that tastes slightly different. Milk from every cow is different, just as a chardonnay grape is nothing like its pinot noir counterpart.
That’s not to say that a room full of raw milk varietals reminded me of any wine bar I had ever visited. I arranged an introduction to raw milk by attending a Buffalo, New York, conference of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a group with a passionate belief in the nutritional value of animal fats and a profound hatred of all things soy. The venue could have been any event in any convention center anywhere, were it not for one feature that set it apart: the odd smell.
In my experience, milk only had a smell, any smell, if it had gone bad. You don’t want any smells from the dairy section at Key Foods or C-Town Supermarket. The smell on the convention floor wasn’t bad, exactly. Slightly sweet with just a hint of sour, something like fresh-cut grass mixed with sweet cream and vanilla.
A handful of attendees brought their own bottles of raw milk, cradled tenderly in the crook of an arm. But the emphasis seemed to be on the politics of milk, as opposed to actually drinking it. “Everybody here already knows how it tastes,” vendor Max Kane told me. “We’re preaching to the converted.”
The farmers, Kane explained, for the most part are as eager to sell as consumers are to get their hands on the good stuff. The problem, he told me, is delivery in a state where sales off the farm are illegal. Being the middleman can be as dangerous as producing and selling the milk yourself. As the owner and founder of FarmMatch, an online network that connects farms and consumers, Kane said he is constantly flirting with legal trouble. Health authorities in Illinois, for example, want Kane to hand over the names of his raw-dairy producers. “They want to hold me in contempt of court,” Kane told me, with an indignant shake of the head. For four and a half years he has avoided their grasp, but he said he had no intention of handing over his sources, no matter what happens.
Should the courts pursue him as vigorously as he defends the privacy of his producers, there is a very real chance that Kane could go to prison. At the very least, he could be saddled with thousands of dollars in fines that would bankrupt his fledgling business.
Surely all the raw milk in the world isn’t worth that kind of risk.
He disagreed, echoing a line Sally Morell, president of Weston A. Price, would give a rapt audience later that day: “The very foods being demonized by our government are the ones we should be eating.”
Optimism is growing that governments, at the state level at least, and raw-milk foodies will come to a better understanding. Texas is considering changing state law to allow raw dairies to sell at farmers’ markets and deliver to customers’ homes. Nevada is considering a proposal that would officially legalize the sale of raw milk. And Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin, indicated he would sign legislation that would make raw milk available directly from dairy farms. This is a major turnaround from 2010, when Jim Doyle, then governor, struck down legislation allowing sales from the farm.
Slowly but surely, raw milk is becoming easier to get.
What was the fuss about? I decided to see. Would this stuff really give me a new boost of health and vigor, improving my digestion and strengthening my immune system? As I live in New York City without a car, schlepping to a dairy farm was out of the question. So I pursued Udder Milk, an outfit that would deliver the raw contraband to my doorstep in Queens.
I stared at the nervous middleman standing before me.
“ID?” I asked. Did he actually want to see my driver’s license?
I hesitated. Maybe this investigative endeavor had gone too far. I was no passionate proponent of raw milk, after all. It wasn’t going to ruin my day, or my diet, if I couldn’t get my hands on the stuff. What should have been an innocent culinary adventure had become a flirtation with possible jail time and fines I could never afford. I wanted to know what unpasteurized milk tasted like, and whether the miracle drink would release a rosy-cheeked, bionic version of myself. That was it.
What if this guy took down my information, stored the details in Udder Milk’s database, and the feds raided their operation? Would I be the next target? What if I was on the hook for my illegal purchase? The rosiest cheeks in the world weren’t worth prison time.
Perhaps a Nalgene bottle full of raw milk ran the same risk as a dime bag of weed. Lord knows the smell alone could draw attention.
I took a deep breath and reminded myself that the issue seemed to lie mostly with the producers, sellers and middlemen like Max. Coming after me would hardly put a dent in the raw milk business and would do nothing to stop dairies from pumping out the liquid gold. But I was frightened that might change. Perhaps a Nalgene bottle full of raw milk ran the same risk as a dime bag of weed. Lord knows the smell alone could draw attention.
The thought of being frisked and cuffed for raw milk made me laugh. The deliveryman eyed me suspiciously.
I’d come this far. “Can I run inside and get it?”
The deliveryman sighed deeply. He had no time to fool with a clueless raw-milk novice. Kept to a tight schedule by his black-market employer, he handed over the blue bag, turned on his heels and scurried back to the van.
I made my way upstairs, opened the bag and pulled out a nondescript bottle of white liquid, my half-gallon of raw cow’s milk. I unscrewed the lid, ran a hot washcloth around the outside (death to any malevolent pathogens, surely) and poured the creamy contents into a clear glass. I swirled it around, considered the thick texture and the odd smell. It was similar to the scent that wafted my way in Buffalo, but slightly less sweet. I lifted the glass to my lips, swirled the milk around in my mouth, contemplated my digestive future and swallowed.
I was instantly seized with fear. The diseases that could be dripping down from my stomach in a matter of hours are a nasty business. In less than a day my body temperature could spike. I could be wracked with diarrhea and abdominal cramps. If the infection spread to my intestines and bloodstream, listeriosis could take hold. The bacterial infection could fool me into thinking I had the flu at first, as I shivered with chills and muscle aches. But once the mess leapt into my intestines, the infection could poison my blood, coat my brain and spinal cord with meningitis and kill me. E. coli could manifest itself as anything from bloody diarrhea to kidney failure. The bacteria, microbes and enzymes in my raw milk were either helpful allies fortifying my system, or foreign invaders hell-bent on taking me down. I was either going to emerge fresh and healthy, or keel over before the weekend was out.
I decided to hedge my bets for survival. After all, the milk was rich, creamy. Nothing about the experience of drinking it blinked red in warning. The texture wasn’t so different from the organic, whole Horizon milk I’ve been buying lately. But the flavor was another matter entirely. The milk was a bit sweet, a touch tangy. Somewhere between the sweet summer milk that conference goers in Buffalo lovingly described and the tangy winter, hay-fed variety. It was a nice starter version for the undecided.
My half-gallon didn’t last long. I love milk and take the stuff every morning with cereal and coffee, alongside anything spicy I ever eat, and in a tall cold glass after ballet class. Over the next week I did notice more resilience in my sometimes-sensitive stomach – salad bars and taco trucks didn’t wreak the digestive havoc they normally do.
Was that because of my raw milk, or thanks to a renewed effort to drink three liters of water per day? I couldn’t say. All in all, drinking my newfound contraband seemed rather anticlimactic. I have no plans to give up on the grocery store variety. Pasteurized milk is, for now at least, easier and cheaper to buy, and I made the unprofitable decision to go into journalism.
But an unpasteurized, smelly chunk of French Muenster … now, where could I find a little of that?