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Food Safety vs Dietary Choice: The Raw Milk Argument

The debate over unpasteurized, or raw milk has been heating up in recent months. Those who drink it tout its nutritional benefits, but government health officials warn that consuming raw milk is not worth the risk of contracting a dangerous food-borne illness.

One day a week, in a church parking lot in Lexington, dairy farmer Gary Oaks hands out glass bottles of raw milk from of the bed of his pickup. It’s milk that goes directly from the cow to the bottle and then is quickly refrigerated. About forty people will stop by to collect their orders.

It’s illegal to sell unpasteurized cow’s milk in Kentucky and some 20 other states, but Oaks and his visitors operate in a gray area of the law. Customers instead buy shares in Oaks’ dairy cattle herd, so they’re essentially drinking milk from a cow they own.

"It’s agreed upon that this animal belongs to them and so we don’t have any right to sell them, and we keep them abreast on how the herd is doing," Oaks said.

Oaks’ customers talk about raw milk with an almost religious ferver. It’s a lot more expensive than the store-bought product, but Mike Dixxon calls it the tastiest milk you’ve ever had.

"Like liquid ice cream."

Dixxon is a Lexington paramedic who drinks about a half-gallon of raw milk each week.

"There’s a definite difference (in quality) and I think you can only know that by tasting it," Dixxon said.

But more importantly, says another customer, John-Mark Hack, is raw milk’s nutritional value, something he says is lost during pasteurization, when the product is heated. Hack is a former director of the Governor’s Office of Agricultural Policy.

"There are enzymes that are well documented to be present in raw milk that are big boosts to our immune systems. There are probiotics, healthy bacteria that’s present in raw milk that facilitates good digestion," Hack said.

But Dr. Robert Tauxe says raw milk can also contain something else: Bacteria that make us sick.

Tauxe is a food borne illness investigator at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He says those disease-causing germs like Salmonella and E-coli are killed by the heating process, which doesn't have a major impact on milk's health benefits.

"Pasteurization may slightly reduce some of the vitamins, but we don’t think it leads to an important change in the nutritional quality of the milk," Tauxe said.

The CDC says from 1998 through 2009, more than 1,800 people were sickened by consuming raw milk and raw milk products, resulting in some 200 hospitalizations and at least two deaths, with most of the outbreaks occurring in states that allow sales.

But proponents say there’s risk involved with consuming anything, and they want the government to leave them to their own dietary choices.

The argument has resulted in an unlikely union that’s been lobbying for looser restrictions on raw milk: the so-called Granola crowd of health food enthusiasts, and conservatives who want less government regulation.

"I call them food liberty issues," says Republican Kentucky state Sen. Johh Schickel. 

Schickel doesn’t drink raw milk but last session he sponsored a bill aimed at keeping the state out of herd share and other natural food programs.

"There’s been a great coalition of people who are interested in these issues. A lot more people than I realized."

Schickel’s bill cleared the state Senate but died in the House, but he plans to bring it back next year.

The sale of raw milk for human consumption is also illegal in Indiana but lawmakers have directed a study of the issue. An eighteen member panel has been conducting an online public hearing this summer and will recommend how the product should be tested, bottled and sold if the law is changed.

Alan Yegerlehner serves on the panel. He and his wife, Mary, own the Swiss Connection dairy farm and store in Clay City, Indiana. They sell raw milk, but it has to be labeled as pet food. He hopes lawmakers will find a way to at least allow on-the-farm sales for human consumption.

"People can see what’s going on and talk to you and if there is a problem, you immediately have a network there you can start dealing with the problem," Yegerlehner said.

Yegerlehner’s advisory panel has until December 1 to make its recommendations, then next year, theIndiana General Assembly will decide if raw milk sales should be legalized.<p?

"This might be something that will fly," Yegerlehner said, "and it may be we’ll do all the work and nothing will happen, too."

Rick Howlett was midday host and the host of LPM's weekly talk show, "In Conversation." He was with LPM from 2001-2023 and held many different titles, including Morning Edition host, Assignment Editor and Interim News Director. He died in August 2023. Read a remembrance of Rick here.

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