Two Sides to Every Issue: The Different Beliefs About Raw Milk

by Hannah Clay Wareham

Raw milk—milk that hasn’t been pasteurized or homogenized—has long been a contentious issue in the public health community. The product’s safety is often the hub of debate. Access to raw milk, however, was the subject of recent controversy in Massachusetts after informal groups of people buying raw milk for one another were told that what they were doing was illegal, and ordered to stop.

Massachusetts is one of 28 states that have legalized raw milk for public consumption. Inside state lines, however, raw milk is only available directly from one of the 27 raw milk dairy farms (in certain states, such as Connecticut and California, it’s legal to sell raw milk in stores).  To deal with this restriction, raw milk buying clubs formed. The clubs consist of like-minded people who take turns driving to the dairy farms to pick up raw milk—often in a refrigerated vehicle—and distribute it amongst members. Some clubs charge a small fee that covers the cost of gas, and some require members to pay a weekly fee. Others abstain from charging anything but the price of the milk, which can cost up to five times per gallon as its pasteurized counterpart.

In February of this year, raw milk buying clubs began receiving cease-and-desist orders from the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR), headed by Commissioner Scott Soares, stating that they were operating illegal businesses by shuttling the milk from the farm to the consumer without a milk dealer’s license. The orders made it difficult for raw milk consumers to access the product—especially those living in urban areas—and forced some dairy farmers to tighten their belts financially.

Soon afterward,MDAR announced a proposed change in regulations that would make raw milk buying clubs explicitly illegal.The next four months would see discussion and debate about the health and safety of raw milk and the rights of Massachusetts citizens to buy it.

“Let Food Be Thy Medicine”

Raw milk consumers and supporters offer this eminent quotation from Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, as justification for drinking milk that hasn’t been pasteurized or homogenized. Supporters of raw milk believe that pasteurization (a careful reduction of some pathogenic micro-organisms using high temperatures followed quickly by cool temperatures) may render inert a large portion of naturally occurring calcium, in addition to enzymes that can aid human digestion.  Homogenization removes the thick yellow cream that floats to the top of raw milk by passing the milk through a sieve or screen, which decreases the size of fat globules that contain steroid and protein hormones that may be beneficial to humans.

Anecdotal health claims about the benefits of raw milk abound, and find support in clinical evidence from a 2007 study performed by the Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine at the University of Basel (Switzerland). The study found that children ages 5 to 15 who regularly drank raw milk had a lower incidence of asthma and allergies.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) counters on its website that there is no evidence raw milk can cure allergies and that it may, in fact, contain “a wide range of dangerous pathogens that can cause illness.” The website also describes the consumption of raw milk as “playing Russian roulette with your health.”

Despite the FDA’s warnings, however, raw milk drinkers have seen the product ease the symptoms of muscular dystrophy, depression, digestive problems, eczema, asthma, various allergies, brain damage, chronic fatigue, Asperger’s syndrome, attention deficit disorder (ADD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and lactose intolerance.  Soares is among those who believe that the consumption of raw milk is likely not harmful to your health. In 2008, while he was the assistant agricultural commissioner, he told the Boston Globe he believed that the risks of consuming raw milk were minimal. “I do believe it’s a safe product,” he told the Globe.That same year, Reuters named raw milk controversy as the year’s top health debate.

Regardless of the health benefits and drawbacks, raw milk drinkers believe it should be their choice whether to consume unpasteurized and unhomogenized milk—and that it should be easily accessible to everyone who wants it. Rachel, a member of a raw milk buying club who asked that her last name be withheld to protect the club’s activities, shifted the focus from the purported medical benefits to the simple right to buy milk. “The focus should be on the pursuit of civil liberties and the right of the constituents to choose what they deem appropriate,” she said.

Rachel doesn’t view herself or the other members of the buying club as criminals, just milk drinkers. “It’s just that we drive a little farther,” she said. “And we know where our milk comes from.”

Agency and Access

Supporters of raw milk buying clubs argued that the relationship within the clubs constituted not a business, but rather an “agency agreement.” In these agreements, the first party (“principal”) contracts the second party (“agent”) to complete a task that the principal is able and allowed to do. Agency agreements can allow an agent to pick up a principal’s OxyContin prescription; they can allow an agent to buy a car in a principal’s stead.

“If I’m allowed to go get milk, I should be able to ask you to go buy milk,” Winton Pitcoff explained. Pitcoff is the raw milk network co ordinator at the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), Massachusetts chapter. Pitcoff has been drinking raw milk for the past three or four years, and pointed out—as a testament to its safety—that his 7-year-old son drinks it, too.

Interestingly enough, Pitcoff said, previous regulations “never said anywhere that raw milk could only be sold on the farm, it was just enforced that way. No one challenged it.” Therefore, Pitcoff said, the buying clubs weren’t breaking any laws, just “sharing the responsibility for picking up milk” from dairy farms across the state—farms that depended on the clubs as a key part of their customer base.

NOFA’s website compares raw milk buying clubs to carpooling.

“The clubs do not sell or distribute milk—they do not maintain an inventory, mark up their product, or offer it for sale to the public,” an April essay on the website read. “They are acting as agents of individual consumers who contract with the private club to provide a service.”

Commissioner Soares understood the agency agreement argument, but didn’t believe it could be applied to milk. “It’s very different than [picking up] a pack of cigarettes or a box of Ring Dings or a piece of fruit,” he said. “Milk is a very unique product with specific regulations.”

Rachel described her buying club as a “co-op style arrangement,” where everyone shares driving and no one makes a profit. “There’s no middleman,” she said. “Nobody’s making money off it.We just don’t want to drive to the farm every week.”

“People eat raw fish,” Rachel offered as a comparison to voluntary raw milk consumption. “It’s an individual choice.”

Giving audience to the issue

Section 27.08A of the proposed MDAR regulations stated, “No person shall sell, distribute, provide or offer for consumption to the public any raw milk elsewhere than on a dairy farm where that raw milk was produced.” If passed, 27.08A would effectively ban raw milk buying clubs and make their activities illegal. The buying clubs “were operating illegally,” Soares said on May 10. “They were engaged in a commercial business that they were not licensed for.…The sanitation controls that are required by the state are at the farm, and we have no way of knowing what happens to the product after it leaves the farm.”

After the proposed regulations had been announced, a public hearing was scheduled for May 10. In the days leading up to the hearing, Soares and MDAR received so many letters, phone calls and e-mails in opposition to 27.08A that the section was removed. “It was pulled in response to the response we received,” Soares said. Boston Localvores, an area organization formed in support of local food, reported that MDAR had received 285 comments total, and all but one had been in favor of the buying clubs—the outlier having been submitted by the Department of Health.

Despite the fact that 27.08A was no longer a part of the proposed regulations, Soares fielded comments from those who attended the hearing and wanted to speak out about buying clubs, and went so far as to extend the hearing to allow everyone who was interested time to speak. “It seemed to attract the most attention,” Soares said of 27.08A.

The public hearing lasted 3½ hours and included comments from Rep. Denise Provost. “It seems to me that in withdrawing the proposal to end the raw milk buying clubs that you are acknowledging the value of this relationship between farms and people,” Provost said at the hearing. “The fact that I had not heard of these buying clubs, I think, also indicates that I had not heard of any problems with these clubs or with the fresh produce that they purchase and distribute.…[T]he wisest choice is to refrain from regulating where there is no need to regulate.” In fact, no instance of illness related to the consumption of raw milk that has been legally purchased from a licensed dairy farm through a buying club has been reported since the clubs were in existence.

A continuing theme of public comments aired at the hearing addressed the economic benefit that buying clubs represent to raw milk dairy farmers. A gallon of raw milk can sell for as much as five times that of its pasteurized equivalent. “We work very, very hard to provide healthy, quality raw milk to meet all of the requirements in the state of Massachusetts to produce a quality, safe product,” Sam Robinson from Harvard’s Robinson Farm stated before the audience at the hearing.  “But it’s the buying clubs that have made…our model sustainable. And without them, we won’t survive.” Another dairy farmer stated that her business stood to lose more than $35,000 a year without the buying clubs, and worried about the future of her several employees.

Participants in the hearing voiced concerns that banning buying clubs would force the purchase and distribution of raw milk underground.  More than one person feared that the “underground” products would not fall underMDAR regulations, and be unsafe for public consumption.

The Future of Raw Milk Buying Clubs

“We needed to take a step back,” Soares admitted. Since the hearing, MDAR has launched an investigation that will explore options for raw milk access and distribution, including the raw milk buying clubs.

The cease-and-desist orders that have been issued, however, still stand—and future orders can still be issued. “Virtually any business that’s engaged in raw milk needs to have a milk dealer’s license,” Soares said. Clubs can still receive cease-and-desist orders “as they are brought to our attention, like any violation of state regulations.”

Soares and MDAR plan to continue advocating on behalf of the state’s dairy farmers, and providing technical assistance to those who wish to produce raw milk. “We have a great opportunity at farms,” Soares said, for consumers and farmers to interact—an opportunity that’s rendered moot by the buying clubs.MDAR’s website urges people to pick up raw milk themselves and foster “a direct relationship between the farm and the consumer to assure quality.”

“Protecting the interests of the [raw milk dairy] industry is paramount,” Soares said. “We’re trying to find the best path for the industry, as well as the consumers.”

Hannah Clay Wareham is associate editor of Bay Windows, New England’s largest LGBT weekly newspaper, and an avid believer in the local food movement. She is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College, and lives in Western Massachusetts with her partner. Hannah can be reached at hclaywareham@ gmail.com.