The romance of raw milk

(Kansas City Star, MO)

By ANNE BROCKHOFF

 

Sarah Burnett and her family don’t just believe in raw milk. They make a good part of their livelihood selling it.

 

At Heritage Farms near Cameron, Mo., their herd of mostly Jersey and Jersey-cross cows grazes pasture that has been in the family four generations. The family milks the cows, filters and chills the milk and delivers it to customers in Missouri.


“We tell people, ‘We take it out of the cow, filter it and it’s yours,’” Burnett says.

 

That’s what worries regulators, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The Burnetts are among several hundred small American dairy farmers producing raw, or unpasteurized, goat and cow milk — and more consumers are clamoring to buy it.

 

Proponents say raw milk is an essential and delicious part of a healthy diet. Critics say drinking it is downright dangerous and sales should be banned. The debate is surprisingly vitriolic, given that even the most optimistic estimates put the number of raw milk drinkers at 500,000 nationwide.

 

Sixteen states ban raw milk sales, according to the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit organization that maintains a list of raw milk suppliers and supports a legal defense fund for farmers. In some other states, raw milk can be purchased only as animal feed, as part of a cow share program or with a doctor’s prescription.

 

Regulatory, legislative and legal pressure elsewhere left several Kansas City-area raw milk producers too nervous to be interviewed for this article, and few customers were willing to divulge their sources.

 

So, let’s be clear: It is legal to produce and sell raw milk in Kansas and Missouri with some restrictions. Kansas consumers must buy it at the farm, and dairies can advertise only with an on-farm sign. Missouri dairies can sell raw milk on the farm or deliver it to customers. Retail sales at farmers markets or other outlets are not allowed in either state. It’s also illegal to sell raw milk across state lines.

 

At issue is a single process: pasteurization. Developed in the 1860s by Louis Pasteur, pasteurization uses heat to kill bacteria and other pathogens. It was adopted by the U.S. dairy industry in the early 20th century, which is either a good or bad thing, depending on your viewpoint.

 

Raw milk advocates admit poor animal nutrition and dirty production methods did aid the spread of disease in bygone days. Pasteurization helped solve the problem, but today’s stainless steel equipment, milking machines, refrigeration and other advances make it unnecessary now, says Sally Fallon-Morell, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation.

 

“We have the technology today to get clean raw milk to everybody in every corner of the nation,” Fallon-Morell says.

 

Twice a day Pamela Nee, who farms near Gardner in Johnson County, opens the gate to her goats’ pen, and five LaMancha and Nubian females take turns trotting into the open-air milk shed. They scramble onto knee-high stands and munch grain as Nee brushes their coats, washes their udders and her hands and aims the first squirts into a cup to check for injuries or illness that could affect the milk.

 

She efficiently empties udders into a stainless steel, filtered bucket and then transfers the milk to a stainless steel milk can. It goes into a nearby freezer so it will chill quickly. The evening’s milk will be added later; then Nee might turn it into cheese, butter or yogurt, or simply drink it.

 

“I believe raw milk is safe if it comes from healthy animals and is handled correctly,” says Nee, who also teaches cheese-making workshops.

 

Raw milk is said to be rich in vitamins and minerals, beneficial enzymes and bacteria and other heat-sensitive components that can do everything from aid digestion and boost immunity to fight arthritis, heart disease and other ailments.

 

For Greg Tamblyn, a Kansas City-based motivational humorist and musician, raw milk is essential for keeping his sinuses, throat and singing voice free of congestion.

 

“If I eat pasteurized milk, cheese or yogurt, it’s just hard on my vocal cords,” says Tamblyn, who began drinking raw milk in 1975.

 

Danny Veerkamp of Lawrence grew up drinking raw milk and was thrilled to recently discover a local source. “It’s so much better, so much different,” says Veerkamp, who also makes yogurt and butter with raw milk.

 

The National Dairy Council’s Web site says it’s a myth to say raw milk is healthier than pasteurized milk. Such misconceptions, it says, “stem in part from failure to understand modern conventional dairy farming practices and the health importance of milk pasteurization.”

 

As far as the FDA and other food safety watchdogs are concerned, the risk of food-borne illness simply outweighs any potential benefits. “Raw milk should not be consumed by anyone at any time for any reason,” says John Sheehan, the director of the FDA’s division of plant and dairy food safety.

 

According to the FDA, pasteurization kills dangerous bacteria like escherichia coli, campylobacter, listeria and salmonella. These bugs can cause diarrhea, stomach cramps, fever, headache, vomiting and exhaustion — misery for anyone, but a serious health threat for children, pregnant women, elderly people or others with a weakened immune system.

 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Kansas and Missouri state agriculture and health departments echo the FDA’s position. Why is their view so unequivocal? Because raw milk and products made from it can make people sick.

 

The CDC identified 45 outbreaks of food-borne illness linked to unpasteurized milk or cheese made with unpasteurized milk between 1998 and May 2005, the most recent period for which figures are available. A total of 1,007 people became ill, 104 were hospitalized and two died, the CDC says.

 

In December the Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported two outbreaks of campylobacteriosis that sickened 87 people in the state. One was linked to cheese made with raw milk, the other to liquid raw milk.

 

And, while raw milk is a small slice of the dairy market, it was associated with 30 percent of dairy-related outbreaks between 1990 and 2005, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based health and nutrition advocacy group.

 

“There is no way any producer of raw milk can guarantee the milk they produce is consistently free of pathogens,” Sheehan says.

 

Still, raw milk fans argue the risks are minimal when compared to recent outbreaks caused by ground beef, spinach and jalapeño peppers. Food-borne illness from all sources sickens an estimated 76 million people a year, landing 300,000 in the hospital and killing 5,000, according to the CDC.

 

“The only way you are 100 percent guaranteed not to get sick from food is not to eat and to starve to death,” Fallon-Morell says.

 

All that makes buying raw milk a transaction of extreme trust. Advocates encourage others to ask plenty of questions, visit farms and get to know producers to ensure milk is handled safely.

 

For Burnett, milk safety starts with the cows. Theirs is an intense pasture-rotation system, where cows are moved daily to fresh grass. They feed stockpiled forage during the winter, but cows don’t get any grain.

 

Calves stay with their mothers longer, so the cows don’t need to be milked as frequently. These choices keep the herd healthier and reduce the risk of dangerous bacteria in the milk, Burnett says.

 

The Burnetts milk once a day, four days a week, starting in April. Production peaks at one gallon of milk per cow per day and then tapers off until the cows dry up in November. At a more typical dairy operation, cows are milked twice daily and produce around 6 gallons a day.

 

The farm is truly a family one. Burnett’s great-grandfather moved there from Kentucky in 1915. Her father, Duane, farmed 160 acres of the original land with his father until the elder Burnett’s death in 1997. He now runs the operation with Sarah and her siblings, Hannah and Matthew.

 

The family also produces free-range eggs, pasture-raised poultry and natural pork using organic methods. Marketing, deliveries and family time round out their week. It’s a change from the more labor-intensive, conventional approach Sarah Burnett grew up with.

 

“We’ve milked year-round, and we’ve bottle-fed calves. We’ve dealt with chapped teats, frozen teats — all those issues,” she says. “We don’t want to fight that hard.”

 

On milking days the cows are cleaned off outside the barn. Once they are moved inside, the cows’ udders are washed with soap and water. The Burnetts use a portable milker and then take the milk into the house to be filtered, chilled in an ice-water bath and refrigerated at 37 degrees.

 

Milk is portioned into gallon, half-gallon and quart glass jars and kept on ice while Burnett makes deliveries, including a stop to meet customers at Badseed Market in downtown Kansas City. Like most raw milk, theirs is not homogenized,  1/2 cups of cream to rise to the top of every gallon.allowing about 1 (Homogenization uses high pressure to evenly distribute fat globules throughout the milk.)

 

Burnett also builds trust with customers through e-mail and plenty of “face time” at the Liberty Farmers Market, where her family sells products other than raw milk. They also held their first farm tour in August.

 

“We’re honest and open with our customers,” she says.

 

Most fans of raw milk find their source by word of mouth, although the Weston A. Price Foundation does maintain a list of raw milk dairies on its Web site (www.realmilk.org).

 

Raw cow’s milk generally costs about $8 a gallon; goat milk is about $12 a gallon. Careful handling is essential. Sarah Burnett of Heritage Farms near Cameron, Mo., urges customers to transport milk in an ice-filled cooler and handle it carefully.

 

“We tell customers to use smart sanitation,” Burnett says. “Wash their hands, and keep the milk really cold.”

 

Raw milk doesn’t come with a “use by” date like pasteurized milk, but it will generally keep about two weeks when handled properly, producers say. 9-17-08___________

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