The udder truth

Raw milk really is a wonder tonic, say devotees, who meet secretly to buy it and swear it reverses chronic diseases. But is it safe to drink? The official word: No.

Published January 19, 2007 12:55PM (EST)

Thirty-four-year-old Brigitta Jansen, a statuesque brunette with radiant skin, is no stranger to unpasteurized milk. She grew up in a tiny German village, where she and her grandmother, pails in hand, would fetch milk fresh from a neighbor's farm. But over the years, after moving to a bigger town and then, ultimately, to New York City, she unthinkingly switched to pasteurized milk, which was more convenient and easier to find.

Two years ago, however, while pregnant with her first child, the eczema that had always plagued her got a lot worse. "My skin grew so sensitive. I would stand in the shower and scratch my arms and legs," Jansen says. After a lengthy Internet search, she came across the Weston A. Price Foundation, which promotes the nutritional philosophies of a Canadian dentist who advocated eating traditional foods such as grass-fed beef and raw dairy products. Price's 1939 book, "Nutrition and Physical Degeneration," showed -- with photographic evidence of implausibly straight and cavity-free teeth -- how the nutritionally rich diets of so-called primitive cultures were far healthier than the diets of Western industrial nations.

Jansen bought "Nutrition and Physical Degeneration" and read it cover to cover. After that, "I had to have raw milk," she says. And through the New York City chapter of the WAPF, now 600 members strong, she found a farmer who produced it. After a few months of drinking the milk on a daily basis, Jansen's eczema was gone. She guzzled it throughout her pregnancy and now that she's breast-feeding, craves it even more. "I drink about a quart a day," Jansen says, laughing.

Jansen is part of a growing movement of health-conscious consumers who say that unpasteurized milk -- as long as it's from grass-fed cows -- is capable of reversing chronic diseases from asthma to irritable bowel syndrome. According to raw milk devotees, pasteurization -- which zaps the milk to 145 degrees (or even higher with ultra-pasteurization) -- destroys vitamins A, B12 and C as well as beneficial bacteria such as lactobacillus, enzymes such as phosphatase (which facilitates proper calcium absorption), and an anti-arthritis compound called the Wulzen Factor. Lactobacillus, in turn, breaks down into lactase, an enzyme that helps people digest lactose, making raw milk easier for even the lactose-intolerant to imbibe.

Many people come to raw milk as a last resort; one man I spoke to for this article had terrible asthma, one woman had debilitating arthritis, and another had osteoporosis (which pasteurized milk hadn't improved) -- and all saw complete reversals of their diseases after a few months of drinking it. Their stories were persuasive, but in an age where E. coli is turning up at Taco Bell and even in organic spinach, I wondered: Is it really safe to drink unpasteurized milk?

In a word: no. A scan of the CDC's Web site turns up several recent bacterial outbreaks traced to raw milk: Last year in Washington and Oregon, four children were sickened by E. coli O157:H7; in 2002, there was a multi-state outbreak of Salmonella enterica serotype typhimurium; and in Wisconsin, in 2001, 70 people were infected with Campylobacter jejuni. Such outbreaks were the reason pasteurization was introduced in the first place, of course (it was only an added benefit that the process also extended milk's shelf life). As early as 1908, cities such as Chicago and New York required the pasteurization of milk -- and in 1948, Michigan became the first state to ban raw milk. Today, though pasteurization is not compulsory on a national level, it is required of any dairy hoping to ship its wares across state lines and has become the law in states that have adopted the Food and Drug Administration's pasteurized milk ordinance, an operating manual for the handling and production of milk. Public health officials unanimously agree that pasteurization has dramatically reduced infectious diseases.

Still, despite the risks, remarkable recovery stories like Jansen's abound -- and demand for raw milk is increasing. The Weston A. Price Foundation, founded by nutrition activist Sally Fallon in 1999, already has 400 chapters around the world and more than 9,000 members. According to Fallon, anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 people join each month. "People are sick and searching for answers -- and they're getting better," Fallon says. Pam Laine, a 45-year-old from Silicon Valley, was headed toward diabetes when she began drinking raw milk. "It eliminated all my cravings for sweets, refined foods and alcohol," she told me. "My blood sugar levels are now normalized." A 53-year-old New Jersey man I spoke to was so impressed with his own turnaround on raw milk (he was diagnosed with hepatitis C, with viral counts at 15 million, and after nine months of drinking it, the virus was undetectable) that he starting giving it to his four grandchildren, all of whom had asthma. "This is the first winter they're not getting sick," says the man, who asked to remain anonymous, since raw milk is illegal in New Jersey. "They don't need their inhalers anymore."

It's hard to ignore such compelling anecdotal evidence -- even as the FDA, the American Medical Association and most of the scientific community caution that raw milk contains deadly pathogens. Despite the recent outbreaks of E. coli in the American food supply, none of the raw milk drinkers I spoke with were concerned about bacteria lurking in their milk. "I'm from Europe," Jansen told me. "I wasn't brainwashed about stuff like that." Instead, people spoke of "lusting" after the rich, creamy, "living" milk and knowing and trusting the dairy farmers that produce it. Some compared living without raw milk to being deprived of a vital medication. Laine, the near-diabetic, said, "If I can't get my one-half to one quart per day, I feel the sweet cravings begin to return. Traveling can be a problem for me."

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It's a Wednesday night in a brick office building near Manhattan's Union Square, and a cross-section of New Yorkers -- a Dominican family from the Bronx, an African-American woman in her 30s and a young mother with an Australian accent -- are traipsing up a stairwell with empty bags and boxes in hand. On the second floor, a hipster couple in their 30s inquire about a delivery of colostrum, while an elderly woman steps gingerly over a cooler full of half-gallon jugs of milk.

A few times a month, members of this private "milk club" come here (and to several other drop-off locations across the city) to pick up raw milk and other natural foods -- like grass-fed meat, organic vegetables and fermented foods such as kim chee, sauerkraut and kvaas -- that they've ordered directly from local farmers. Their reasons for seeking out the milk are as diverse as the members themselves -- some are chefs who crave the quality and rich flavor, or immigrants who miss the raw dairy of their homeland, or people of all income levels with health problems, or problems digesting pasteurized milk, who find that raw dairy helps. The timing of deliveries is not publicly advertised, and members learn about drop-offs and sites a few weeks in advance on the club's Web site.

While such clubs may be reminiscent of Prohibition-era speakeasies, what their patrons are doing is not technically illegal. Each state has the right to regulate its own raw milk -- though the FDA banned the sale of raw milk across state lines in 1987 -- and in New York state, on-farm purchases of raw milk are legal. The difference is that, rather than commute to the country fields for their weekly fix, milk club members place their orders over the phone with the dairy and mail their checks. The club then hires a middleman to deliver the prepaid orders to the city.

Today, raw cow's milk is legal in at least 22 states -- and is legally available through inventive arrangements in a handful of others. In Florida and Arizona, raw milk can be sold as pet food, as long as it is labeled as such. Dairy farmers in other states are getting even more resourceful in skirting the law while also meeting demand: Cow-share programs, in which consumers buy a share in a cow (usually an annual fee of $25) and then pay a "boarding fee" when they come to fetch their share of the animal's milk, are thriving in Ohio, Virginia and Michigan. "There is no law against drinking milk from your own cow," Fallon explains.

But some states -- and even the FDA -- have begun cracking down on such creative loopholes. Wisconsin banned shares a few years ago, after an outbreak of Campylobacter jejuni was traced to raw milk. In October, state troopers pulled over Michigan dairy farmer Richard Hebron as he was making a delivery and seized more than 400 gallons of his raw milk. And one month earlier, in California (where it's been legal since 1930 and is to this day sold in retail outlets), agriculture officials shut down the nation's largest raw milk dairy, Fresno-based Organic Pastures, after five children who drank the milk became infected with E. coli. (Intensive investigations since then have not turned up any E. coli at the farm, in the milk or even in the cows' manure.) Finally, last fall, an Amish dairy farmer who ran a cow-share program in northeastern Ohio was busted when an undercover state inspector came to his door, feigning interest in raw milk.

One of the most outspoken critics of unpasteurized milk is John Sheehan, director of dairy and egg safety for the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Drinking it, Sheehan says, "is like playing Russian roulette with your health." He's even devised an anti-raw-milk PowerPoint presentation. When I ask Sheehan if he's familiar with the theory that pasteurized milk is a nutritionally depleted beverage, his response is terse: "Such claims are wholly without scientific support." Sheehan's slide show enumerates the hazards of drinking raw milk (especially by those who are immuno-compromised) and appears to be a direct rebuttal to a similar slide show that can be found on the Weston A. Price Foundation's Campaign for Real Milk site. (One of Sheehan's slides: Myth No. 1: Raw milk kills pathogens. No it doesn't.")

Mark McAfee, the owner of Organic Pastures, says his dairy has been under intense scrutiny since September, when the E. coli outbreak prompted state investigators to shut the company down for a few weeks. Two of the five children infected with E. coli were hospitalized -- and one nearly died. Still, McAfee maintains there is no proof that the E. coli strain that infected the five children came from Organic Pastures milk. (Indeed, that strain was also separate from the E. coli O157:H7 traced to Earthbound Farm's spinach, which infected nearly 200 Americans in 26 states in September.) Even before this scare, McAfee's dairy was aggressively inspected by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the Fresno County Health Department and even the FDA.

"I'm probed like you cannot believe," he says. "There's no notice -- they just show up in their white suits with their hairnets and booties." Though disruptive, these inspections are essential if he is to keep his Grade A status. "And they've never found a pathogen," McAfee says, with obvious pride. "Anytime, anyplace."

He isn't surprised. McAfee's Holsteins and Jerseys, all 300 of them, feed year-round on fresh, organic grass -- Sweet Clover, Bermuda and Johnson -- and are kept immaculately clean. McAfee has even invented a mobile milking barn for his cows that allows them to graze rotationally and keeps them away from crowded, manure-filled barns.

Another reason no pathogens have ever been found in his milk, McAfee believes, is that it contains a host of active antibacterial components -- not just proteins like lactoferrin, but enzymes, bacteriocins, colicins and at least 25 beneficial bacteria, including lactobacillus and bifidus, the same probiotics that are found in most yogurt. And all of those components, McAfee says, are destroyed during pasteurization. (In her book "Nourishing Traditions," WAPF founder Fallon concurs: "Pasteurization destroys these helpful organisms, leaving the finished product devoid of any protective mechanism should undesirable bacteria inadvertently contaminate the supply.") To prove his theory, a few years ago, McAfee sent his milk and colostrum to a private lab and had both injected with high levels of the three pathogens. The bacterial counts of all three bugs decreased over time. And the conclusion of the scientist at BSK Labs? "Raw colostrum and raw milk do not appear to support the growth of Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7, and Listeria monocytogenes," stated the lab report. McAfee is so proud of his below-normal bacteria counts that he posts annual averages on his Web site.

"Pasteurization is an excuse to produce dirty milk," says Los Angeles raw milk activist Rahman Dalrymple, citing the outbreaks of salmonella, listeria and Campylobacter that have all been traced to pasteurized milk. In California, accepted bacteria levels for Grade A raw milk are fewer than 15,000 colony-forming units per milliliter; accepted levels for raw milk destined for pasteurization is 50,000. (Post-pasteurization, milk in California can contain 15,000 CFUs per milliliter. States that adopt the FDA's Pasteurized Milk Ordinance allow pasteurized milk 20,000 CFUs per milliliter, one-quarter more than California's raw-milk limit.) Dalrymple, who credits raw milk with curing his asthma, emphasizes that he would never drink raw milk that's destined for pasteurization by a large industrial dairy. Not all raw milk is created equal, Dalrymple says. "Raw milk is dangerous -- if you get it from one of these industrial dairies that have fecal matter and pus and blood in their milk. I would absolutely not drink that!"

This distinction -- between raw milk that's destined for pasteurization and raw milk from a small, spotlessly clean dairy that's kept to higher standards precisely because the milk won't be pasteurized -- is a crucial one, and it's lost on public health officials like Sheehan, who seem to lump all raw milk into the same pathogen-contaminated vat. Industrial farms are dirty -- as the recent agri-exposés "Fast Food Nation" and "The Omnivore's Dilemma" have proved. When Sheehan thinks of raw milk, in other words, he's thinking of milk from cows crowded together in barns, eating a diet of corn, and standing in their own manure. All the raw milk advocates I spoke to are against drinking this type of raw milk.

Perhaps even more convincing is the argument, made by raw milk advocates, that safe raw milk must come from grass-fed cows. That distinction, too, is ignored on the FDA's Web site, in remarks that Sheehan made last May to Ohio's House Agriculture Committee, and in his anti-raw-milk PowerPoint presentation. Cows, like all other ruminants, are meant to eat grass. Yet, at the vast majority of U.S. dairies -- even organic ones -- cows subsist on corn feed. In "The Omnivore's Dilemma," Pollan explains how eating a high-starch diet acidifies a cow's rumen, making the animal sick and eventually allowing bacteria to enter its bloodstream. A cow's corn diet can also make us sick: E. coli O157:H7 has been around only since the early '80s, when it likely evolved in the acidic guts of corn-fed cattle. (E. coli O157:H7 is so lethal because human stomachs, too, are acidic. We can kill off microbes that evolve in the neutral pH of a grass-fed cow's rumen, but not the acid-resistant strains such as E. coli O157:H7.) Grass-fed cows also produce milk that is intrinsically more nutritious: Whole milk, butter and cream from grass-fed cows contain conjugated linoleic acid, an omega-6 fat that has been shown to inhibit breast, skin, stomach and colon cancers. (CLA is found in both raw and pasteurized grass-fed milk -- it does not appear to be damaged by pasteurization.)

Like irradiation, which has been proposed as a way of ensuring the safety of meat and vegetables in our food supply, pasteurization is an after-the-fact measure that does little to prevent contamination in the first place. Rather than trying to force industrial dairies to clean up their act in order to improve the health of their herds, the FDA has put its support behind higher-temperature pasteurization. As described on Cornell University's Dairy Science Web site, this process is even more lethal to bacteria, further extending milk's shelf life. According to the International Dairy Foods Association, the most common method of pasteurization today is high-temperature short time (known as HTST), in which milk is heated to "at least" 161 degrees Fahrenheit for just 15 seconds. But IDFA spokeswoman Susan Ruland says that dairies are increasingly moving toward ultra-pasteurization (UP), during which milk is heated to 280 degrees Fahrenheit for two seconds, and ultra-high temperature (UHT), a method so intense, it effectively sterilizes milk so it doesn't even require refrigeration. Horizon, the largest organic milk brand in the United States and a subsidiary of dairy giant Dean Foods, uses only HTST, UP and UHT. Such high-temperature, shorter-time methods are ideal for specialty products such as cream or organic milk that don't move off the shelves as quickly as regular milk.

Raw milk advocates say the higher-temperature pasteurization methods have a much greater impact on milk's nutrient content than even traditional vat pasteurization, which heats the milk to 145 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes. But according to Kerry Kaylegian, a food scientist at Cornell University who specializes in dairy chemistry, though HTST, UP and UHT inactivate more enzymes and nutrients in raw milk, this inactivation is minimal. "Pasteurizing milk does not affect the nutritional properties of the fats, the proteins or the lactose," says Kaylegian, who is spearheading Cornell's Milk Facts Web site. Though Kaylegian acknowledges that lactobacillus is destroyed by pasteurization, she dismisses the assertion that raw milk from small, pristine dairies is somehow safe to drink. "Raw milk, even from healthy cows under sanitary conditions, still runs the risks of having pathogens in it," Kaylegian says.

But raw milk proponents like Dalrymple are quick to argue that pasteurization isn't a panacea for pathogens, either -- and that plenty of outbreaks have recently been traced to pasteurized milk and pasteurized cheese. In most cases, as in the 2000 case of multidrug-resistant Salmonella typhimurium in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey, pathogens contaminate the milk after pasteurization when containers, surfaces or hands are not properly washed or the milk or cheese isn't sufficiently pasteurized. (All of which, raw milk advocates would agree, is terrible: When insufficiently pasteurized, some of the protective, good bacteria is killed off, yet the pathogens remain.) Another worry for the dairy industry is heat-resistant pathogens, such as Mycobacterium avium subspecies paratuberculosis, a hardy bacterium that causes Johne's disease (pronounced "yo-knees" -- a disease common in U.S. herds that has been controversially linked to Crohn's disease in humans). At least one study, conducted in 2004 by Dr. Jay Ellingson, of Marshfield Clinic Laboratories, in Marshfield, Wis., has shown that MAP can survive pasteurization.

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So, what to make of Jansen's vanishing eczema or Dalrymple's complete recovery from his asthma? Ditto the New Jersey man whose four grandchildren no longer need their inhalers?

A compelling new study, published in the June 2006 issue of the Journal of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, seems to lend support to what these three already know to be true. Researchers at the University of London analyzed the diet of 4,700 children in Shropshire and found that those who lived on farms and drank raw milk had significantly fewer symptoms of asthma, hay fever and eczema. Children who drank raw milk were 40 percent less likely to develop eczema and 10 percent less likely to get hay fever than their non-raw-milk-drinking peers. Blood samples showed that they had 60 percent lower levels of immunoglobulin E, an antibody released by the immune system when it's confronted by allergens. (IgE, in turn, causes cells to release histamines, which is what causes an allergic reaction.) In their conclusion, study authors Michael Perkins and David Strachan surmised that the lactobacilli found in raw milk protect against eczema. They also stated, "Unpasteurized milk is known to be rich in a variety of gram-negative species and their lipopolysaccharides, and it is plausible that a persistent exposure to a diverse milieu of bacteria from an early age is likely to have an effect on the developing immune system."

In the end, it seems, raw milk is a lot more complicated than the FDA and the AMA would have consumers believe. Like sushi, raw milk is a nutritionally rich food that can be contaminated if it's not fresh and prepared in an immaculate, sterile environment. Just as raw milk devotees buy their milk from farmers they know and trust, so sushi connoisseurs tend to patronize the same few high-end restaurants -- and know which days the fish is freshest. But the government isn't lobbying to make raw fish illegal (yet). That may have everything to do with sushi's status as an exotic Japanese import -- a food usually enjoyed (in this country) by city-dwelling adults. Milk, on the other hand -- wholesome, nourishing cow's milk -- is more than just a healthy beverage; it's a symbol of the American heartland. It's a drink Americans of all income levels feed their children unthinkingly. And the behemoth dairy industry -- in 2006, it made $20 billion from milk alone, according to the National Milk Producers Federation -- would like to keep it that way. As Dalrymple put it: "Milk is big business. When you think milk, think Exxon."

Still, to suggest that there's a conspiracy afoot seems absurd. Small dairy farmers -- some of whom can't even legally advertise that they sell raw milk -- make up a fraction of the country's market. David Gumpert, a columnist at who has covered the recent crackdowns on raw milk farmers on his blog, The Complete Patient, doesn't think Big Dairy is threatened -- yet. "Raw milk is not huge right now, but if it ever caught on..." Gumpert's voice trails off. Most dairy farmers sell their milk to pasteurization cooperatives for roughly $1 a gallon. But Mark McAfee can get as much as $10 a gallon for his raw milk -- and he sells direct to stores and consumers. Though Organic Pastures is a relatively small operation, it doesn't take an econ major to figure out that those numbers could quickly add up.

Meanwhile, the FDA has just announced that it's safe to eat meat and drink milk from cloned animals. In such an Orwellian universe, where raw milk from cows that have two biological parents is considered dangerous, while pasteurized milk from cloned cows is safe -- is it any wonder that a growing band of consumers don't trust FDA decisions? Raw milk drinkers don't appreciate being treated like drug addicts, reduced to buying their milk at clandestine outlets or joining a cow share just so they or their farmer won't be harassed. But their goal is not to make raw milk ubiquitous, they say -- only legal. "We're not pushing for in-store sales of milk," says Fallon. "We want to make sure that farmers can sell it at the farm gate."

By Hannah Wallace

Hannah Wallace is a Brooklyn-based journalist who writes for Natural Health, Travel + Leisure, and the New York Times.

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