Is America Playing A Risky Game Of Raw-Milk Roulette?
Christine Haughney covers corruption and criminal behavior as part of the Zero Point Zero Production series Food Crimes.
When Hayden Kyle was 12, his father asked him to help milk the family’s cows. For sustenance, he brought along a batch of freshly baked cookies. When he became thirsty, he washed them down with sips of the frothy, freshly pumped raw milk.
Those fateful sips would land him in the hospital for 10 days, sickened with campylobacter, a type of bacteria that in the worst case can lead to paralysis. His parents, Laurie and Dave Kyle, watched their son flail in pain with a 105-degree fever. Thankfully, he recovered. But the incident still haunts his parents.
“I thought we were going to lose him,” says Laurie Kyle, who has become a relentless ambassador for pasteurization and helped push her home state of Wisconsin to ban retail sales of raw milk, a law that is now in effect. “I would never want anybody in any family to go through that.”
In dairy-rich Wisconsin, America’s top cheese producer and supplier of more than 29 billion pounds of milk in 2015 alone, few topics have generated more controversy in recent years than unpasteurized raw milk. In 2013, an Amish farmer distributing raw milk attracted national attention when he was convicted for defying authorities during a raid on his farm. And in 2014, an entire high-school football team was sickened after drinking raw milk at a potluck. But it still has its fans: Late in 2015, a state legislator introduced a bill to legalize retail sales of the divisive fluid again.
This endless back and forth mimics the raw-milk battles taking place across the country. Raw-milk advocates say the untouched milk prevents allergies and builds immunity. Critics warn that raw milk is unsafe because it contains contaminants that are normally removed through pasteurization and that can be deadly for children who drink it.
The debate about raw milk largely falls to individual states to resolve, with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration merely discouraging drinkers against it. Currently 29 states allow some type of raw-milk sales, according to the website Real Raw Milk Facts, which was started by food-safety lawyer Bill Marler, who has represented many liquid raw-milk victims. Families in states where it’s outlawed often get around these bans by joining a herd share program, where they technically own part of the cow.
But even some victims of contaminated raw milk are ambivalent about treating dairy farmers like criminals. Brianna Winnekins, who was hospitalized for four days and lost feeling in her legs after drinking raw milk at a high-school football pregame potluck, didn’t entirely agree when her parents considered suing the farmers who brought the milk.
“I didn’t hold a grudge against them,” Winnekins says. She notes that in the farming community where she lives, her boyfriend, who works on a farm, drinks raw milk regularly and without incident. “If it’s properly transported, I have no problem with it,” she says.
In states such as California, where raw milk is sold legally, it has continued to generate lawsuits and controversy. In 2006, Mary Martin gave her then-seven-year-old son Chris unpasteurized milk, believing it would help him with his digestion and congestion issues. Instead, he developed E. coli that caused hemolytic uremic syndrome and later caused kidney failure. After spending about $450,000 in medical bills for his two-month hospital stay, Martin and her husband Tony successfully sued Organic Pastures Dairy Company, which supplied the raw milk, to pay their debts. Martin is now an unofficial advisor to parents of children sickened by raw milk, helping them manage the long-term medical conditions that follow.
“It’s a huge hurdle of forgiveness,” says Martin about how responsible she felt for giving her son the raw milk that sickened him. “I thought I was making a responsible decision.”
But in January 2016, a third E. coli outbreak caused by raw milk was traced back to Organic Pastures. Mark McAfee, owner and chief executive of Organic Pastures, who did not respond to an email request for comment, notified customers of the problem in February on the Organic Pastures Facebook page. Ronald Owens, a spokesman for the California Department of Health, says the agency has investigated five outbreaks tied to Organic Pastures since September 2006.
Still, there are plenty of other states eager to make raw milk more widely available. In December 2015, Wisconsin state representative David Murphy introduced a bill to make it legal again to purchase raw milk directly from farms. The bill did not receive a hearing in either house, according to a spokeswoman for Murphy. In the U.S. Congress, Rep. Chellie Pingree from Maine and Rep. Thomas Massie from Kentucky introduced legislation to decriminalize the sale of raw milk as part of interstate commerce. A Pingree spokesman said that the bills have “continued to generate bipartisan support,” though they have not been scheduled for a hearing.
In a statement issued at the time the bill was introduced, Pingree described the issue as a matter of individual freedom: “A lot of people want to buy fresh, unpasteurized milk, and regulations shouldn’t get between them and a farmer who wants to sell it. It just doesn’t make sense to spend money cracking down on small, local farmers who are producing natural, raw milk, and I think the enforcement of raw-milk regulations has been overzealous and needs to be reined in.”
Raw-milk supporters are getting assistance from groups like the Weston A. Price Foundation, which touts the health benefits of raw milk, especially for preventing allergies. Sally Fallon Morell, founder of the foundation and a Maryland farmer and cheese maker, says that raw milk is far less dangerous than other products.
“I’ve never talked to anyone who was sickened by raw milk,” says Morrell. “The dangers are minuscule. Even if someone does get sick from raw milk, it’s a couple of days and it’s minor. The benefits are huge.”
But some academics like Michelle Jay-Russell, a research microbiologist and veterinarian at the University of California, Davis, argue that the studies that groups like the Price Foundation base their evidence on don’t translate to urban settings. She notes that many studies promoting raw milk’s benefits were conducted in rural areas, where people have more interaction and immunity from farm animals. Russell says the families who consume raw milk in cities don’t have the same immunity and there certainly is not enough evidence that raw milk can prevent allergies.
“I have difficulty extrapolating what happens in these villages to Los Angeles and New York City,” says Russell. “I would not tell a parent to use raw milk for allergies. I think they could end up with something worse than what they started with, especially if you’re talking about mild allergies.”
Some dairy experts think that instead of treating raw-milk sales as a crime, the industry should explore ways to make it safer. Dennis D’Amico, an assistant professor of animal science at the University of Connecticut, is researching alternatives to traditional pasteurization. “What we’d like to do is try to make this product as safe as possible through whatever means we can have,” says D’Amico, “whether it be education or through trying to develop new processes that raw-milk producers would be happy to apply that may help reduce those risks.”
As with most controversies, the truth about raw milk is not all good or all bad. Consider the nuanced view of Andy Hatch, an owner of the award-winning Uplands Cheese in Wisconsin, who studied dairy sciences at the University of Wisconsin and apprenticed in France and the United Kingdom under some of the world’s foremost experts in raw-milk cheeses.
Hatch says that his family drinks raw milk from the cows they raise. But when his children were infants, he and his wife pasteurized their milk on a stovetop. He adds that he and his wife never serve raw milk to their friends or their children.
“I believe that our family’s immune systems are acclimated to certain, but not all, bacteria in our milk,” says Hatch. That’s why he personally gives his family raw milk. It’s not the same for everybody. Says Hatch, “It’s a matter of our kids having incidental contact with our cows’ manure almost every day.”