A growing number of Americans are buying raw milk. That's milk that has not been pasteurized to kill bacteria.
As we've reported, the legal treatment of raw milk varies state by state. In some places like California, it's sold in stores. In other states, it's outlawed entirely — although folks get around regulations by buying a "stake" in a cow so they're drinking what amounts to their own milk, or selling it as a pet food.
But this patchwork of permissions and workarounds means that, as a nation, we don't have any national standards when it comes to raw milk testing and safety.
A new group is trying to change that.
Mark McAfee is the CEO of Organic Pastures, California's largest raw milk dairy. And after frustration with the lack of national standards, he founded the Raw Milk Institute.
"People are searching for local raw milk," McAfee explains. "But when they go to the farm, or they go to the store, they really don't know what they're getting."
To create both accountability and transparency, McAfee worked with epidemiologists, biologists and other health professionals to create RAWMI's standards. Instead of just focusing on the end results, like bacteria levels, they also worked up detailed protocols for the entire process — from taking the temperature of the dishwasher used to clean the milk bottles to the distance between the water well and manure pile.
The group is also looking at the risk specific to each farm, whether it's a muddy slope with three cows in Oregon or a sunny California farm with a midsize herd.
When a farm completes its hazards analysis, planning and testing — and passes a site visit from RAWMI — it is listed on the institute's website. Right now there are half a dozen farms listed, with 10 more in the midst of the process.
The first farm to be listed was Champoeg Creamery, a small dairy about 30 miles south of Portland, Ore. Owner Charlotte Smith is a fifth-generation farmer. But when she first started producing raw milk a few years ago, she discovered it was an entirely different animal.
"I could call the extension office, and get some help on what was going on with my vegetables, or what is this beetle eating my tomatoes," says Smith. "But there's no one that will help you with raw milk production."
And with about 100 families buying her milk — and monitoring an E. coli outbreak at a neighboring farm that landed kids in the hospital — Smith was committed to getting it right. Because while Smith says raw milk may offer health benefits, she also acknowledges the very real dangers.
"You can bring home a chicken and sell the eggs, and feel pretty safe about it. But raw milk, coming out of a cow, and manure flying during milking time — it is a huge challenge, far different than any other farm animal we have."
As someone looking for guidance, Smith was a bit surprised that national regulatory agencies wouldn't lend their expertise to establishing safety criteria. To them, she says:
"Raw milk is here to stay, whether you want to admit it or not. So why not work together, come up with some very basic things, where if you're going to produce and sell raw milk, you're going to agree that you have met these standards. In my mind, it seems so easy."
But regulatory agencies aren't jumping in. That's because they argue that raw milk is not safe under any circumstances. Robert Tauxe at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that while the safety plans and regular testing advocated by RAWMI can certainly reduce the risk of bacterial contamination, they can't offer any certainty that the particular gallon you grab from the shelf is truly safe.
"A cow can test negative today, and then get infected tomorrow," notes Tauxe.
Tauxe is not unsympathetic to the reasons people seek out raw milk. "I understand the interest in having colonies of living bacteria in the food we eat," he says. "The problem is when those living bacteria that are beneficial get mixed up with the living bacteria that cause disease."
But for raw milk drinkers like Portlander Adrian Hale, getting those living bacteria are worth the risk. And guidelines like those established by the Raw Milk Institute are a part of managing that risk.
"There's a lot of choices we make with food, so I try to make those choices as best I can," says Hale. As a food writer concerned with healthful choices, Hale looks for the full story behind the food on her table. And as a mother, she's even more concerned. "I don't want to be a negligent parent. I just wanted that assurance that the person who is producing the milk is paying attention."
As Hale notes, a lot of food choices can have risk — food outbreaks have struck everything from cantaloupe to spinach, and we take a chance every time we eat a delicious raw oyster. But when the producer — and the consumer — are paying attention, it can create a risk that's a little more manageable.
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