The Raw Deal

Psst! Wanna buy some raw milk? Many Jersey families do—but they get the unpasteurized stuff out of state, where its sale is legal. Is it healthful or dangerous? Even Trenton has joined the debate.

Illustration by Pete Ryan.

The bootlegged goods arrive by truck from Pennsylvania twice a month. On the appointed date, Valerie Scott drives 15 minutes from her Teaneck home to a secret drop-off point, where she picks up a jug. Each day she pours a little into her coffee, savoring it.

This modern-day white lightning is nothing more sinister than whole milk, but raw—unpasteurized—straight from cows grazing on an Amish farm. “It’s just delicious,” says Scott. “Really, really rich, very smooth, very creamy. It’s so much better than pasteurized milk.”

It’s not just the taste, but the purported health benefits of carefully produced unpasteurized milk that has led many people in the last decade to consume raw milk or milk products, which 29 states allow to be sold. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta estimates that between 1 and 3 percent of Americans drink raw milk—about 3 million to 9 million people. A more conservative estimate comes from the Weston A. Price Foundation, an organic- and minimally processed-foods advocate, which puts the number at half a million to 1 million nationally.

The numbers in New Jersey are hard to estimate, but Garden State Raw Milk, an advocacy group that is part of the Foodshed Alliance, was able to gather 2,000 signatures on a petition submitted to the state Legislature to legalize the sale of raw milk here. Still, victory is hardly assured. Government officials and mainstream medical groups like the American Medical Association warn that raw milk—which has not been subjected to the high heat of pasteurization—can harbor dangerous pathogens like E. coli 0157:H7 and Campylobacter that can lead to serious illness and even death.

Advocates argue that pasteurization destroys not only dangerous bacteria but also beneficial enzymes and antimicrobial components of milk. They cite studies showing that drinking raw milk protects against infections, tooth decay, allergies and asthma, improves immunity and leads to denser bones. They also claim it helps fight chronic bowel diseases, attention deficit problems, auto-immune disease and arthritis.

The risks of falling ill from raw milk, advocates say, have been greatly exaggerated. A number of government-reported cases of illnesses linked to raw milk, they claim, were actually caused by milk intended for pasteurization and thus not necessarily produced under the same careful conditions present at well-run raw-milk dairies with healthy, grass-fed cows. The advocates also argue that New Jersey dairy farmers, whose numbers have been slipping rapidly, would benefit from the higher prices consumers pay for raw milk, as much as $6 to $10 per gallon.

Scott, an associate professor of social work at Ramapo College, believes drinking raw milk and eating raw-milk yogurt and sour cream the past few years has diminished the frequency of her bouts of diverticulitis and other intestinal problems. “I was hospitalized every couple of months for one thing or another,” she says. She stayed out of the hospital for nearly five years until a recent recurrence, which she says was mild compared to those she’s had in the past. “I still hold that I’m overall significantly healthier.”
Federal law prohibits transporting raw milk across state lines—hence the need for delivery clubs, like the one Scott joined, to operate in secrecy. If you live in New Jersey and don’t belong to a delivery club, you can go to Pennsylvania or New York, where raw-milk sales have long been legal. Pennsylvania—whose 7,400 dairy farms include 139 licensed to sell raw milk—has experienced five outbreaks of raw milk-associated illness since 2007. In all, about 200 people became ill. In New York, with 5,500 dairies and 33 raw-milk permit holders, five people became ill last year after drinking raw milk from a farm in Saratoga County.

Joseph Heckman, a professor of soil science at Rutgers University, is a raw-milk consumer who hosted a seminar series on the topic at Rutgers in 2008. Many colleagues criticized him for his stance. “I’m an exception as a scientist,” he says. “Most don’t support my view.” Like many farm families even today, he drank raw milk throughout his childhood on a dairy farm in Ohio, with no ill effects. When he left for college, though, he no longer had access to raw milk and developed severe allergies. Once he switched back, his allergies disappeared.

“When you’re around cows and exposed to microorganisms on a regular basis, it can build up the immune system,” he says. “There are advantages to being exposed to germs. On the other hand, food-safety people want to go in the direction of making everything increasingly sterile. That may be counter-productive.”

Raw-milk sales were legal in New Jersey until 1964. The state is now closer than it’s ever been to lifting the sales ban. Spurred on by consumers, many with links to the Weston A. Price Foundation, legislators in the state Assembly in March of this year overwhelmingly passed a bill that would make on-farm sales of raw milk legal. A similar bill has been introduced in the state Senate, but a hearing set for March was cancelled and has not been rescheduled.

“I signed onto this bill because of my constituents,” state Assemblywoman Connie Wagner (D-Paramus) said at a hearing before the Assembly’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. She also raised the economic argument: New Jersey farmers lose out when people leave the state to pay handsomely for raw milk, in addition to other products—fruits, vegetables, meats—that they purchase at the farm. “Some are even having it [raw milk] delivered illegally,” she added. “The bottom line is, they’re getting it.… I’m looking at this as a little economic boost to New Jersey.”

And there’s no doubt New Jersey’s farmers need help. There are just 85 dairy farms left in the state, down from a peak of about 5,000 in the 1940s, according to Michael Westendorf, a professor of animal science at Rutgers University’s Agricultural Experiment Station. Prices that dairy farmers get for conventional milk keep dropping. And development pressures in the state make it much more lucrative to sell off agricultural land than to try to make a living farming it. But even if farmers could make more money selling raw milk, it’s unlikely to make a noticeable dent in the industry as a whole. “To say it will save the dairy industry in New Jersey—that’s just not going to happen,” Westendorf says.

Yet some farmers believe raw-milk sales could at least stem the tide of farm losses. Peter Southway, owner of the 330-acre Springhouse Dairy in Newton, Sussex County, says he’s eager to begin producing raw milk. “Right now I’m getting not quite $1.35 a gallon for milk on the wholesale market, even though it retails at $4 a gallon,” says Southway, who has about 50 cows and uses some of the milk for cheese. “If I could sell just 10 percent of my milk raw and get $6 a gallon for it, that would be a big boost.” He says he gets three to four requests a week from customers who want to buy raw milk.

Farmers with large dairy operations in southern New Jersey, however, have testified against legalizing raw-milk sales. Owen Pool, a dairy farmer from Mickleton, Gloucester County, predicted people would get ill and it would hurt sales of all New Jersey milk. “We don’t want to see the industry ruined,” he told agriculture committee members.

“Why undo 40 years of safety laws?” dairy farmer Margery Eachus of Pilesgrove Township in Salem County asked in her testimony. “I’m afraid something will happen and the media won’t distinguish between pasteurized and raw.”

Safety issues do loom large. The proposed bill calls for a permit program that would include regular inspections and require farmers to have their milk lab-tested twice a month. A sign would be posted at the point of sale that would read, “Raw milk is not pasteurized and may contain organisms that cause human disease.”

Just how risky is raw milk? The Centers for Disease Control says that, of the estimated 48 million food-borne illnesses recorded every year in the United States, fewer than 1 percent are caused by dairy products. But 70 percent of all dairy-related illnesses are due to raw milk or raw-milk products, the agency says. The CDC reports that nationwide there were more than 1,600 illnesses, 191 hospitalizations and two deaths attributed to raw milk or raw-milk products between 1998 and 2008.

Raw-milk proponents say the CDC-reported figures are misleading because they combine fluid raw milk and products such as queso fresco—a soft cheese made from raw milk that is often imported illegally from Mexico—or made from milk destined for pasteurization or produced in unsanitary conditions. In fact, the two deaths reported by the agency between 1998 and 2008 were linked to queso fresco, according to Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the CDC’s division of food-borne, water-borne and environmental diseases. Raw-milk advocates also stress that there have been large outbreaks of illness caused by contaminated pasteurized milk in the past, including one outbreak in Massachusetts in 2007 in which three people died.

David Gumpert, a raw milk advocate and author of The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America’s Emerging Battle Over Food Rights, says his analysis of CDC data from 1973 to 2008 shows between 50 and 150 illnesses a year linked to raw milk or raw-milk products nationally. “Raw milk is more risky than pasteurized milk—that’s the reality,” he says. “But you have to keep in mind that neither product is especially risky.”
Even if the number is small, health officials are adamant that it’s a risk not worth taking. Dr. Tauxe of the CDC says even with healthy cows raised on pasture (not grain), “bacteria that cause disease can be present in raw milk.” Authorities cite cases of people suffering kidney failure, heart attacks, coma, stroke and paralysis, and point out that children, pregnant women, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems are especially vulnerable. John Sheehan, the Food and Drug Administration’s director of plant and dairy food safety, has likened drinking raw milk to “playing Russian roulette with your health…. Raw milk should not be consumed by anyone, at any time, for any reason.”

To date, there have been no reports of outbreaks attributed to raw milk in New Jersey, according to a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Health and Senior Services, although the department concurs with the FDA’s warning about the dangers of consuming raw milk.

No matter how rare, illnesses related to raw milk can be devastating. Five years ago, Mary McGonigle-Martin, a high school guidance counselor from Murrieta, California, started giving her 7-year-old son Chris raw milk to drink. He had been congested, and she’d seen a sign in the health food store suggesting raw milk helped with allergies and asthma. She’d consumed it herself for a time 30 years earlier, with no ill effects.

A little more than two weeks later, though, after drinking from a newly opened bottle, her son was rushed to the emergency room with severe vomiting and bloody diarrhea. He developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a blood disorder that progressed to renal failure and congestive heart failure, requiring blood transfusions and time on a ventilator. Perilously near death at one point, he spent two months in the hospital.

Although Chris has recovered, McGonigle-Martin says he could need a kidney transplant in the future. Five other children in California who drank raw milk from the same dairy also fell ill in the outbreak. “I was very naive,” McGonigle-Martin says. “I thought a food-borne illness meant you’d have vomiting and diarrhea for a few days. I was completely ignorant that it could kill you.”

Julia Lawlor, who lives in Maplewood, is a frequent contributor to New Jersey Monthly.

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