The raw deal
Nevada’s raw milk underground
Jill Heaton drinks cream with her coffee every morning. It’s a simple pleasure for anyone, but for Heaton, it’s also a little astounding.
For as long as she can remember, milk products—cream, ice cream, butter, cheese—have resulted in sinus infections. “Mostly postnasal and stuffy, always clearing your throat, constantly blowing my nose,” she explains. It wasn’t that she was lactose intolerant; she had no digestive problems, and lactose milk and digestive lactaids never seemed to help. She thinks it’s probably a low-level allergic reaction—one she thought meant she would never get to enjoy dairy products without suffering the consequences.
Then she met Wendy Baroli, and they began Grow for Me Sustainable Farm/Girlfarm about 20 minutes north of Reno on the Nevada-California border.
“I didn’t realize I could drink raw milk until moving out here and getting a Jersey,” she says, referring to their Jersey cow, Minnie.
Raw milk is milk in its natural state, before pasteurization, which heats it to 161 degrees for 15 seconds. Raw milk advocates say this kills both harmful bacteria and good bacteria, like the probiotics several yogurt makers add back to their product. Though pasteurization has been the national standard since the 1950s—and widely used decades before—the debate over the benefits and dangers of raw milk still rages.
Heaton isn’t sure if the reason she can drink Minnie’s milk is because it’s unpasteurized or if it’s because she’s a Jersey cow. The vast majority of milk sold on grocery shelves comes from black-and-white Holstein cows because their breed is an excellent milk producer. Jerseys can produce milk, but not nearly as much of it, so consumers almost never drink milk from Jerseys. Whatever the reason, Heaton is just glad she can now take cream with her coffee—“because that’s a guilty pleasure that I want more than anything in life, that and cheese.” She can also eat the ice cream, butter and cheese she and Baroli make at the farm.
“You’ll hear scientists and the FDA and so forth saying, functionally, pasteurization doesn’t change the whey or casein, the main components of the milk,” says Heaton. “But it does change how they interact with one another. Some of the debate coming out with sugar—high fructose corn sugar and sugar are functionally different less than 5 percent, but humans are only about 2 percent different than a house sparrow when it comes to genetics. So it may be an extremely small difference pasteurization makes in how they interact with one another, but those small differences may be really important. Those are questions we don’t know.”
There’s anecdote after anecdote of people worldwide who are allergic to milk or lactose intolerant but who can drink raw milk. But there’s little solid research connecting such causes and effects. And for residents of several states, including Nevada, giving raw milk a try is prohibitive—Baroli says it’s treated like crack cocaine by some authorities.
Currently, there is no raw milk approved in Nevada. About the only way Nevada residents can legally get raw milk is to own a cow.
Wheys and means
Girlfarm offers one of the few ways Nevadans can get raw milk. My husband, 1-year-old daughter and I visited the farm on a drizzly weekend in April. We watched as Baroli hugged her giant, pregnant Berkshire pig, Woody. We petted her heritage turkeys, her newborn Jacob’s lambs, we nuzzled Minnie, the Jersey cow.
Girlfarm operates a subscription service for 25 “farm families,” for whom they raise produce, eggs, chicken and grassfed meat. The subscribers can also choose to milk Minnie themselves, learn how to filter the milk sanitarily, and bring home that milk. But Girlfarm won’t sell raw milk to the general public.
“We haven’t offered milk for quite some time now because of the ridiculous laws,” says Baroli.
She’s talking about laws that have resulted in farm raids in some states, where authorities in biohazard suits confiscate and dump the illegal “white liquid substance”—treatment typically reserved for narcotics. Meanwhile about half the states in the country, including neighboring California, can sell raw milk. But federal regulations established in 1987 prohibit the interstate sale of unpasteurized milk.
While there’s no raw milk ban in Nevada per se, the state requires that a county milk commission certify its safety. But there is no commission, so it amounts to a defacto ban on raw milk.
“The regulations are in place to allow for the sale of raw milk,” says Lynn Hettrick, Nevada Dairy Commission executive director, referring to NRS sections 584.207 and 584.208. “But either no county has chosen to do the county commission or no applicant has requested the county to do a commission.”
He said that people interested in selling it “just need to request the commission.”
Is it that easy?
“The county would look at this and see if it’s economically feasible to do it … and in all candor, they’d look at the liability issues and see if they want to get involved,” says Hettrick. “There is increased liability in raw milk.”
So while some counties may shy away from raw milk, others may find it in their best interest. Hettrick has been talking with a potential applicant in Nye County. He declines to provide the name but says it’s a large dairy willing to market raw milk. “Given that dairy is a major employer, major taxpayer, major business in Nye County, those county commissioners may look at it favorably,” he says.
Despite postings on its website regarding the dangers of raw milk, Hettrick says the Nevada Dairy Commission is not opposed to it. “We don’t have a problem with raw milk as long as it’s properly handled according to the law,” he says. “More power to them. We hope they sells lots of milk.” But some people don’t operate within the law.
“Some raw milk is shipped to Nevada that says ‘for animal consumption only,’ but we know it’s sold to people. That’s absolutely against the law. We’re out to get mislabeled milk—that we can’t have. Sometimes [dairy farmers] feel like we’re out to get them. We’re not. We’re out to get people going against the law.” And he calls cow shares that provide raw milk a “circumvention of the law.”
But raids are not the NDC’s style, says Hettrick: “We would never do raids. We’d go out and notify somebody that they’re violating the law. We’d never force people to throw away milk. … We understand people want raw milk. At the same time, there are safety issues, and we have to make sure that what people consume is healthy and safe. We’re not confiscating milk or cows; we’re simply trying to say, play within the rules.”
Raids. Circumvention. Liability. Intimidating words for something humans have been drinking for thousands of years. Archeologists trace domestic cattle back to 8,000 years ago in west Asia. Sheep and goats were domesticated in the 8th or 9th century B.C. So what’s all the fuss?
Here are some more intimidating words: Listeria, Salmonella, Campylobacter, E. Coli, sickness, death.
In 2010, there were food-borne illnesses tied to raw milk in Nevada, Utah, New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Illinois. The Nevada outbreak concerned a child in Washoe County who became seriously ill with a campylobacter infection after eating raw homemade cheese sold illegally door to door.
Between 1998 and 2008, there were 85 outbreaks of human infections due to raw milk, resulting in 1,614 illnesses, including two deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
In 1938, a quarter of all U.S. illnesses were linked to raw milk consumption, partly due to unsanitary practices at dairy farms. Since the 1950s, when pasteurization became standard, food-borne illnesses from dairy products are down to less than 1 percent of all outbreaks. And, reports the CDC, 71 percent of that 1 percent is linked to raw milk consumption.
While the FDA doesn’t completely ban raw milk, its stance on it is clear: “FDA Position Statement: ‘The U.S. Food and Drug Administration; therefore, strongly advises against the consumption of raw milk.’” And elsewhere on its website: “Raw milk is inherently dangerous, and it should not be consumed by anyone at any time for any purpose.”
Yet, proponents of raw milk feel just as strongly that people have access to it.
Kelly Reuss, 47, says she has the bones of a 20-year-old and the x-rays to prove it. An impassioned raw milk enthusiast, she’s run the Dr. Kelly Raw Milk Buyers Club in the Truckee area since 2008.
“I probably drink about a gallon a day of the milk, and about a pint a day of cream,” she says.
Her customer list is confidential, so she says she has “no clue” how many of them come from Nevada to get the raw milk. But she says her club’s members include new mothers, senior citizens, military members, even law enforcement. They’re people willing to pay $20 a gallon for organic raw milk. On the north bank of the Truckee River, she distributes a couple hundred gallons a week of it from the back of her pick-up truck. The milk comes from Fresno-based Organic Pastures, a dairy run by Mark McAfee.
That dairy was implicated in an E. coli outbreak in 2006. McAfee told Harpers magazine in 2008, “Look, if I made four kids sick, I made four kids sick. But show me the 50,000 kids I made healthy. We don’t guarantee zero risk. We aren’t worried about the .001 percent chance that someone will get sick; we are worried about the 99 percent assurance that you are going to get sick if you eat a totally sterile, anonymous, homogenous diet.”
Reuss doesn’t think the FDA should be making decisions about health care. To her, that includes access to raw milk. She throws out some numbers.
“Our body is supposed to have 4.4 pounds of beneficial bacteria because it makes things like vitamin K, things that make enzymes,” she says. “[Pasteurization] wipes out the good stuff and makes us susceptible to disease. Without this, we’re dust.”
The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense fund is currently suing the FDA, claiming the agency’s ban on interstate commerce of raw milk is unconstitutional. The FDA maintains that, “There is no absolute right to consume or feed children any particular food.”
While raw milk has shown itself to be risky, so have several other perfectly legal foods.
Refer back to that CDC number—the one that said 1,614 illnesses and two deaths linked to raw milk occurred in the decade between 1998 and 2008. That sounds like a lot, but compare it to the 48 million food-borne illnesses the CDC says occur every year. That includes 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths annually.
During the 2006 Dole baby spinach recall, the FDA confirmed 204 outbreaks, with 102 hospitalizations, and three deaths—more deaths in one year than raw milk had in 10 years, but about the same number of hospitalizations.
Then there were the eggs: A salmonella outbreak last summer involved 550 million eggs recalled from two Iowa farms resulting in at least 2,000 cases of illness.
Other outbreaks have been connected to cantaloupe, beef, deli meat, peppers, tomatoes—all legal, everywhere. What gives?
For one thing, more people eat spinach, cantaloupe and things routinely found on supermarket shelves than they drink raw milk, so the odds are higher for those products that some people could get sick. And critics point out that these are episodic, whereas raw milk has been routinely risky.
But both Baroli and Hettrick—for different reasons—point out that milk is a commodity. For Baroli, that means large dairy farms get federal subsidies for their milk. Most of them are too big to produce and sell raw milk safely—to give the individual care and attention to each animal and its surroundings to minimize the possibility of contamination—so if it were legal, they’d be facing more competition from small farmers.
Pasteurized milk “is deeply entrenched in the financial health of dairy people,” says Baroli. And big dairy farms have powerful milk lobbyists. “It’s about money.”
Hettrick, however, says the local milk market wouldn’t change whether someone wants to sell raw milk or not. “Seventy percent of all milk in Nevada is shipped to California to process,” he says. “You would have no significant impact on the market or other dairies” if small farmers decided to sell raw milk.
Rather, Hettrick says the extra caution with raw milk is partly because it’s considered a staple, something heavily marketed to children and the elderly—the very people most susceptible to food-borne illnesses. He also refers to the notion that, though humans have consumed milk for thousands of years, there’s some evidence our bodies are changing.
“People will say, ‘Well, years and years ago, that’s all anybody got,’ and that’s true,” he says of raw milk. “The same is true of drinking the water supply. People drank the water that ran down the creek, and nobody got sick. They had immunity to the things in that water. Giardia and those things weren’t major issues in times past because everyone was drinking it. Our ability to deal with it, raw milk, is somewhat compromised.”
Have a cow
Meanwhile, as big farms send milk to combine with milk from other dairies and blend into the national pasteurized milk supply, Baroli calls to her Jersey cow from across the field: “Hey Minnie! Hey cow!”
Girlfarm owns Minnie and one other cow that awaits them in Fallon. Baroli and Heaton look for signs of disease, like sores or warts on the teats. They do a test for mastitis. They also wash her down with a mixture of herbs and lanolin soap before milking her, usually by hand. The rest of the time, Minnie grazes on grass, free range—no mingling in feedlots and swapping fecal matter for her.
“When you have one cow, you know exactly where the milk comes from,” says Baroli. “We know that she’s healthy.”
Baroli says the laws aren’t made for small farmers. She doesn’t mind following food regulations, but she doesn’t think they should be one size fits all.
“Considering I’m a native Nevadan, and I’m absolutely a patriot, I believe that in our country, if you can choose to smoke cigarettes with a warning label on that you know it’s going to cause cancer, or alcohol that you know is linked to all these diseases, why is it that with our food we can’t choose with a warning label? There’s a next step that needs to happen.”
“I wish the Tea Party would do something about this,” says Heaton. “This is government at its worst—it seems like a cause the Tea Party, the Republicans, the Democrats, the Libertarians could all get behind.”
Baroli welcomes milk drinkers to go visit a larger dairy, then come to her farm, see her cow, and ask themselves from which they’d rather drink.
She describes an Idaho dairy she visited that processed 14,000 cows per day. “It’s unbelievable,” says Baroli. “All the cows do is they go in, they hose ’em off, hook ’em up and roll ’em out on a conveyer belt. I look at that and think, ‘I would not drink that milk.’ It was disgusting to me, and it was a clean dairy.”
Toward the end of our visit, Baroli invites us into her home for a bite of homemade cheese made from raw milk. It’s wrapped in orange cheese wax. She breaks off a slice—it’s hard, crumbly, pungent. I take a bite. It’s good, similar to parmesan. She offers us a small slice to take home with us. That night, I’ll sprinkle it over my slice of pizza and feel somewhat wholesome for it.
And yet, in Baroli’s kitchen, we’ve been at the farm longer than we’d expected—past my baby girl’s lunchtime. She’s hungry, fussing for the first time that day and reaching out for the cheese we’ve been putting in our mouths. I wonder, should I let her have some? She obviously wants it. In all likelihood, she’ll be fine. I trust this farm. My husband and I didn’t hesitate to eat the cheese ourselves. If a glass of raw milk were before us, we’d drink it down. We’ve seen how Baroli runs things, met the cow that made the milk that made this cheese. We know the risks, and we made an educated decision to indulge. But my daughter can’t make that decision for herself. So in the split second I weigh whether to appear rude to Baroli by not giving my baby this cheese or not to risk it, my mind flashes to the FDA warnings, to the stories of sick kids, to the question of “what if,” and I decide not to give it to her.
I am allowed to make that choice. And that’s basically what Baroli, Heaton, Reuss, raw milk lovers and several small farmers hope all consumers will get to do: Decide for themselves.
“There’s a whole host of people who want food products that are unadulterated,” says Baroli. “We’ve made the leap to grassfed meat without hormones and antibiotics, and we’ve made the leap to organics. The next step is to be able to drink raw milk.”