North Carolina and the raw milk controversy

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August 20, 8:29 PM Sustainable Foods Examiner Blanchard

Raw milk, or milk that has not been pasteurized or homogenized, is becoming more and more popular – and controversial. Supporters of raw milk point to the health benefits of raw milk, while opponents point to concerns about disease and contamination.

Pasteurization and homogenization
Pasteurization was developed by Louis Pasteur in the late 1860’s as a process to slow the growth of microbes by heating food. Milk pasteurization became widespread in the 1920’s as dairy farms became more industrialized and milk was causing widespread illness; today it allows for the transport, distribution and long-term storage of milk across the country.

Homogenization is a process that mechanically treats milk to create a uniform consistency. Without homogenization the cream of the milk would rise to the top.

Raw milk fans claim that pasteurization (and to some extent homogenization) affects the flavor of milk and also kills the beneficial bacteria, enzymes and vitamins found in milk. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) say that pasteurization is necessary to kill pathogens that could cause diseases and contamination including listeria, E.coli and salmonella.

The case for and against raw milk
According to raw milk supporters, raw milk aids digestion and boosts the immune system. Others say that raw milk fights allergies and asthma. The Weston A. Price Foundation, one of the most well-known advocates of raw milk, says on their Campagin for Real Milk Web site that raw milk, “contains many anti-microbial and immune-supporting components.”

Proponents of raw milk cite differences between milk from industrially raised animals and milk from pasture-raised animals – specifically that pathogens in milk are mostly a result of animal stress, poor sanitation and sickness – and raising animals on pasture eliminates these causes. The Real Milk Web site makes this point: “We do NOT recommend consumption of raw milk from conventional confinement dairies or dairies which produce milk intended for pasteurization.”

On the other side of the issue, the FDA and the CDC claim that pasteurization is necessary to prevent illness and death. They especially warn those with weakened immune systems, pregnant women, as well as the young and elderly to avoid raw milk.

According to the FDA’s Web site, the CDC, “reported that from 1998 to 2005, there were 45 outbreaks of foodborne illness in which unpasteurized milk or cheese likely made from unpasteurized milk were implicated. These outbreaks accounted for 1007 illnesses and 104 hospitalizations, and two deaths.” The CDC suspects the actual number of cases to be higher.

In comparison, the CDC also estimates that there are 76 million cases of foodborne illness each year in the United States. The CDC goes on to say that, “the great majority of these cases are mild and cause symptoms for only a day or two.  Some cases are more serious, and CDC estimates that there are 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths related to foodborne diseases each year.” 

Raw milk and the law
Regulation of raw milk production and sales is left to states, and varies widely.

In North Carolina, it is against the law for farmers to sell raw milk for human consumption. Farmers may, however, sell raw milk for animal consumption.

In neighboring states, the laws are quite different. South Carolina licenses Grade A raw milk dairies that are inspected and tested. These licensed dairies may sell raw milk directly to consumers on the farm and via retail outlets. Virginia law allows consumers to purchase a “cow share” from a farmer who boards and milks the cow for the share owners.

Buying milk in North Carolina
Here’s a guide on shopping for milk in North Carolina.

*       Raw milk
You might be able to find a farm in North Carolina that will sell raw milk for animal consumption (wink, wink). If not, for those in the Charlotte region who wish to purchase raw milk, you can travel across the border to South Carolina to buy Grade “A” raw milk. The Weston A. Price foundation has a list of farms and retail stores selling raw milk in South Carolina.

*       Local milk
It is very difficult to buy milk – either raw or pasteurized – directly from a North Carolina farm or farmer. There are many dairies in the state, but most of them sell their milk to producers who pasteurize milk and then distribute the milk.

Some local stores carry pasteurized milk from Homestead Creamery in Virginia, which raises their cattle on pasture and supplements their feed with grain in winter months. In Eastern North Carolina, consumers can purchase pasteurized milk from Maple View Farm and Homeland Creamery – both located in North Carolina.

*       Organic milk
Not all organic milk is created equal, and due to a loophole in the organic milk rules (which the USDA has proposed changing), some organic farms are in reality factory farms that do not follow organic practices. The Cornucopia Institute, a non-profit farm advocacy group, rates organic brands on a five-cow scorecard (five is the best, zero is the worst) based upon their practices and transparency.

Organic Valley milk is widely available organic milk and is cited as one of the better large-scale organic milk distributors and receives a cow rating of four. Organic Valley is a cooperative with a network of smaller farms raising their cattle on open pasture. Horizon Organic scores a zero.

For more information:

*       CDC - Raw Milk and Cheeses: Health Risks are Still Black and White

*       FDA - The Dangers of Raw Milk: Unpasteurized Milk Can Pose a Serious Health Risk

*       Raw

*       Campaign for Real Milk

Further Reading:

*       Got Raw Milk? Be Very Quiet

*       Raw Milk Is Gaining Fans, but the Science Says It's Dangerous

*       Should This Milk Be Legal?

*       The Raw Deal



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