Raw milk's popularity spurs debate over safety

The Denver Post
Article Last Updated; Monday, May 10, 2010  12:00AM

 Raw-milk dairy farmers such as Keith Lafferty collect and bottle milk from the cows on their farms. Consumers purchase shares of the cows, which entitles them to raw milk.
Photo by JASON BLEVINS/The Denver Post
Raw-milk dairy farmers such as Keith Lafferty collect and bottle milk from the cows on their farms. Consumers purchase shares of the cows, which entitles them to raw milk.

ERIE - When the neighborhood kids visit the Lafferty family's bustling farmhouse, they're offered water, juice or milk.“They always say, 'Milk, milk, milk,'" says Nickie Lafferty.
The Laffertys' milk - hand-labeled and stored in Mason jars with a thick head of cream - is straight from the cow. No pasteurization. No processing.
Every afternoon, customers who own a portion of the family's dairy herd visit the 30-acre farm, pulling jars of the farm-fresh, raw milk from a small refrigerator in a spotless room next to the milking parlor.
Whether those people are playing Russian roulette with their health or getting a safer - and tastier - product than the milk found in grocery stores remains a source of contention. That debate is growing in intensity as state health officials crack down on dairies offering other unpasteurized milk products, such as butter and yogurt.
Health officials repeatedly warn that raw milk sickens dozens every year. But since Colorado lawmakers in 2005 allowed farmers to privately sell shares of their dairy herd to drinkers of unpasteurized milk, the number of Colorado dairies offering straight-from-the-cow milk has climbed to 60.
Colorado is one of 29 states - and Wisconsin is about to join them - with cow-share programs that use communal ownership to get around laws forbidding the retail sale of raw milk.
Those who drink raw milk say pasteurization removes some of milk's health benefits. They herald its creamy taste and the security that comes from knowing the source of their food.
“I have more faith in Meg, my farmer, than FDA officials who are being lobbied by industrial food lobbyists," says Michael O'Brien, whose Fort Collins family gets its milk directly from a Windsor dairy.
In the late 1930s, a quarter of all food illnesses stemmed from milk, but with pasteurization, milk has all but disappeared from the Food and Drug Administration's annual list of food-caused ailments.
Now raw-milk sicknesses account for 70 percent of all milk-related outbreaks reported to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Eating should not be risky behavior, and we know better now," said Judy Barbe, a dietician and senior director of nutrition affairs for the Colorado-based Western Dairy Association. “The protection provided by pasteurization is too great to forgo."
Between 1998 and 2008, the FDA counted 85 bacterial outbreaks connected to raw milk. Last year, Colorado health officials suspended operations for two weeks at Montrose's Kinikin Corner Dairy after a Campylobacter outbreak afflicted 12 people who reported drinking the dairy's raw milk.
Scott Freeman, Kinikin's owner, said many people in the region were suffering from intestinal issues at the time, and he's not convinced the outbreak was connected to his milk. He says he lost only four of his 175 share-holding customers after the suspension.
Still, those bacterial eruptions fuel the conventional dairy industry's disdain for raw milk.
“What is happening nationwide as advocates push for raw milk and it becomes more mainstream, you are going to see more outbreaks and more illnesses, and you will see more sick or dead kids, and that will create a pushback effect on raw milk," says Bill Marler, a food-safety attorney who represents food-poisoning victims and helped form the website realrawmilkfacts.com.
“Governors and legislators are going to be facing more difficult choices with raw milk, addressing issues of personal freedom versus science."
Colorado's lawmakers may soon be asked again to ponder raw milk. In April, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment sent a letter to the Windsor Dairy — the state's largest raw-milk dairy — saying its supply of raw-milk products, such as butter, yogurt and soft cheeses, violates the state's raw-milk exemption.
“The position of the department is that you can only have raw milk," says Patti Klocker, assistant director for the department's consumer-protection division.
Doing some risk analysis In response, the state's raw-milk dairies are crafting a proposal to expand the raw-milk laws to include all foods made with such milk.
Marci and Michael O'Brien did their own risk analysis when they opted to go raw. Every batch of milk the O'Briens get from veterinarians Meg Cattell and Arden Nelson at their Windsor Dairy comes with results of pathogen tests.
“We go to the farm and see the cows in clean condition and our kids pet the baby calves," says Marci O'Brien, whose 5-year-old daughter loves raw milk. “I think if people saw how typical dairy cows are treated, they would understandably fear for their food safety."
The Laffertys, who have run a raw-milk cow share for the past year on their family's longtime farm, say they build relationships with customers — customers they want to keep safe and healthy.
“We are just petrified at the notion of getting someone sick," says Nickie Lafferty. “We've built relationships with these people. They're our friends. If anything goes wrong, we are over."
The Laffertys regularly test their milk and their cows. Each animal has a name. Nora, a top producer, gets a little nervous when strangers watch her getting milked.
Customers pay a one-time $40 fee and $30 a month for boarding.
Raw milk boasts higher fat content than traditional whole milk. That gives it a creamy taste that raw milkers champion. Yet most of the 18 families who own 35 shares of the Laffertys' cows drink raw milk for its health benefits, Nickie says.
Among those people is Dana Shier, who at college developed a growing intolerance to milk.
“If I drink a regular glass of milk, I'll throw up," says the 27-year-old from Golden. “I have no problems with raw milk. It seems to help my allergies too."
That sort of anecdotal evidence of raw milk's benefits is plentiful. Raw milkers say pasteurization limits immune-enhancing and beneficial bacteria and is another example of the sterilization of American food.
“The FDA is the real villain in that story. They refuse to even listen to any of the health benefits of milk, and they deny even the possibility that raw milk could be beneficial, yet they push those drugs like crazy," says Mary Blair McMorran, executive director of the Raw Milk Association of Colorado.
Milk safety, while complex, basically boils down to storage and poop. Storage is the easier of the two problems: Make sure the milk is always cold.
Contamination, however, is a challenge. Cows, being cows, tend to sport manure. Making sure it is nowhere near teats, containers, milk or any part of the bottling process is a critical task, says Michele Jay-Russell, a veterinarian and food-safety specialist with the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security at the University of California.
“That contamination is a big concern for people in food safety," she says.
For industrial dairy cows, manure in crowded feedlots is an issue. But grass-fed cows that spend their days roaming pastures aren't wallowing in their waste.
“The conventional dairy industry produces milk designed for pasteurization. That milk will certainly get you sick if you drink it raw," McMorran says. “We design milk for drinking."

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