Raw-milk lovers skirt the law
Unpasteurized product must be labeled 'pet use only,' but people are drinking it
The label on the jug reads "for pet use only," but in the privacy of their kitchens, thousands of people statewide mix smoothies with, churn ice cream with, and drink cold glasses of raw milk.
It is illegal in Florida and many other states to sell raw milk as a human beverage because it can harbor pathogens such as Listeria and E. coli. Milk meant for people must undergo a heating process called pasteurization, which kills all bacteria.
But no laws forbid drinking it.
Drinking raw milk is like religion for some people. They report benefits for ailments including eczema, aches, stomach problems, even lactose intolerance.
Its growing popularity coincides with rising national demand for organic food and a return to small farming.
"It's better for the economy. It's better for the Earth. It's better for your body," said Sarah Pope, Tampa chapter leader for the Weston A. Price Foundation, an advocacy group that vilifies processed foods, with particular disdain for pasteurized milk.
Pope said demand is rising. In 2002, she distributed 500 gallons of raw milk a month from two farms. Now she distributes 6,000 gallons from 10 farms -- still a tiny fraction of the 244 million gallons of milk produced in Florida yearly.
Nationally, somewhere between 500,000 to 3 million people consume raw milk, said Pete Kennedy, interim director of the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund. No surveys document the number of consumers compared to previous years, but Kennedy said nearly twice as many people are calling his office now than last year to find out how to sell raw milk without running afoul of the law.
Here, raw milk is found in health stores and other smaller outlets, rather than large supermarkets. But regulators still see the trend as a health menace. The federal Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the United States Department of Agriculture all warn against drinking raw milk.
"It's very difficult to slaughter or milk an animal and not risk some fecal contamination," said John Fruin, chief of Florida's food inspection bureau. He said raw milk will lose its luster as soon as a disease outbreak occurs here.
Marji Bitterman, 64, says she buys raw milk for her pet. By that she means husband. Every morning in her Sarasota kitchen, she puts eight ounces into their smoothies.
"This is my choice what I am putting in my body and it's not like I'm consuming rat poison," Bitterman said. She started drinking raw milk six months ago and credits it with giving her better sleep and more radiant skin.
The Weston A. Price Foundation serves as the underground railroad for raw milk nationwide, including Southwest Florida.
Cynthia Calisch, Sarasota's chapter leader, gets raw milk for about 100 people.
"Once I know they understand that it's pet food, I'll take their order," said Calisch, a real-estate agent. The farm delivers to Calisch's home. People come from as far as Fort Myers, spending $7 a gallon.
Raw milk has been sold at Whole Foods Market for six years, said Russ Benblatt, the store's regional marketing director. The two-liter bottles sit in the corner of a cooler stocked with eggs. Stores cannot display raw milk beside pasteurized milk.
Benblatt links the milk's increasing sales with rising interest in natural pet food.
"I have no idea whether people are drinking it," Benblatt said. "Because it is not pasteurized we hope that people are obeying the law."
Nineteen dairies hold licenses to sell raw milk for pet food in Florida, said Terence McElroy, spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Raw milk advocates say that heat ruins milk's natural enzymes and beneficial bacteria. They trust their suppliers to be clean, seeing greater danger in the conventional food system.
"You lose faith in your food sources when the bees are dying and so many other things are happening with E. coli in your spinach and look, oh my God, cookie dough!" said Rice, a convert after a lifetime of lactose intolerance. The retired deputy court administrator credits raw milk with curing her eczema.
Florida regulators are aware of raw milk's rising popularity. "I know there's people giving advice on how to do it to circumvent public health requirements," Fruin said.
He said cows host harmful bacteria without showing signs of illness.
Pasteurized milk is not immune to bugs, though. Between 1980 and 2005, pasteurized milk products made 19,500 people ill in the U.S., according to CDC data. During the same period, 1,821 people reported illness from raw milk.
Advocates contend that grass-eating cows are not prone to disease and that small dairies can take cleanliness to extremes.
Karen Dakin, part owner and president of Dakin Dairy in Myakka City, said raw milk should be available for people, but she would never drink it from one of her 1,400 cows.
"We have too many cows for me to take a chance on that," Dakin said. "But I doggone know my pasteurized product is beautiful and healthy."
Every evening after a commute north from his welding job in Tampa, Brian Becher breaks out two gleaming steel canisters and works as a part-time dairy man.
Four years ago, Becher longed for his childhood dairy farm in upstate New York and ordered 11 female calves.
Twelve of his two dozen cows graze a 12-acre pasture in Becher's yard where dozens of chickens scurry. The chickens act as composters, scratching manure into the soil to sprout next year's grass.
At 6 p.m., Becher herds cows onto a plywood slab swept free of dust. He cleans one cow's udders with disposable antiseptic wipes, tugs out a few squirts of milk and then attaches teat cups that suck milk into a sealed canister. He repeats the process 12 times, a three-hour task.
"I look at this as kind of like -- I don't own a boat. I don't own a motorcycle. I don't collect collectible items," Becher said.
Becher, who drinks the milk along with his wife and mother-in-law, sells to 75 regulars. One buys 90 gallons a week for a food co-op.
As long as Becher abides by labeling laws and keeps mum about its drinkability, inspectors leave him alone.
His openness is rare. Friends tell him the yellow sign by his driveway that reads "Raw Milk Supplier" is asking for trouble. He shrugs.
"I'm not going to do something illegal to jeopardize my family," Becher said.
Paranoia surrounds the issue. Most raw dairy farmers did not want to be named. The owner of a dairy near Sarasota said she feels like a drug dealer at times, even though she follows the law.
Raw dairy farmers "are kind of in a tough spot," said the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund's Kennedy, a Sarasota attorney. "It would be a lot easier if they legalized it for human consumption."
Although 28 states technically allow the sale of raw milk for human consumption, many of those states do not have licensed raw milk dairies because their regulations are so restrictive. In some states where raw milk is illegal, people also get around the law through cow shares, in which customers buy a stake in a cow and usually milk it themselves.
Despite the elements of tension, there are no efforts to change Florida's laws.
"The pet milk laws are actually pretty darn good," Pope said. "We're not interested in getting under the skin of the state." 8-04-09
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