Could the Raw Milk Boom Be a Lifeline for Struggling Farmers?

Direct sales of raw milk might ease the dairy crisis, though it remains a hotly contested and regulated food.



For years, fourth-generation Pennsylvania dairy farmer Edwin Shank farmed according to milk industry and university extension advice: he increased his herd size, administered bST growth hormone, and milked his 350 cows three times a day.

It was successful, in a sense. “We were working our heads off producing a tractor trailer load of milk every two days,” Shank says. Nonetheless, Shank faced financial ruin when the price of milk plummeted in the early 2000s. On top of that, his cows were routinely sick with a stomach ailment called displaced abomasum, which is common to high-production dairy cows and requires surgery. “It was a rat race,” he recalls.

Then, in 2005, while transitioning his dairy to organic, Shank rubbed shoulders with neighbors selling raw milk directly to consumers. Once he began taking the possibility seriously, he recognized there was “a pretty big demand for [raw milk].” Consumers are driven by the love for the taste, its promise of valuable nutrients, enzymes and probiotics touted by the Weston A. Price Foundation, and the idea of supporting small-scale, pasture-based farms.

In fact, he realized people were willing to pay more for it, and to travel miles for it. And when he did the math, Shank estimated at retail organic milk prices, he could earn nearly 10 times what he had been getting in the commodity market.

“Dairy is an incredibly consolidated system. The farmer has no bargaining power,” says Judith McGeary, an attorney and board member with the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, a national advocacy group that works with farmers to protect and defend their rights to sell products their farms. “Raw milk provides this polar opposite; you have this product in high demand by consumers who value it, and all that profit goes to the farmer.”

Shank licensed his farm, The Family Cow, with the state department of agriculture and began selling raw milk in 2008. Now, his farm is the largest raw milk producer in Pennsylvania.

He’s not alone. While many American farmers suffer through the dairy crisis or quit, others are choosing the economic opportunity created by the raw milk movement. In doing so, these food producers find themselves in the crossfire of a longstanding war over the risks and benefits of fresh, unprocessed milk. And it’s a fight that shows no signs of dying down soon.

Growing Demand

In 1987, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) outlawed interstate sales of raw milk and established the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO) after years of study, public testimony, and a petition from a citizen health group led by Ralph Nader. The agency determined unpasteurized milk too hazardous for a warning label, since the risks were not related to misuse. Only an outright ban could protect the public health, a federal judge ruled.

Although raw milk is legal in a number of other countries, for over 30 years, the federal government has firmly maintained that only pasteurization—the process of heating milk to over 161 degrees Fahrenheit to kill pathogens, including Campylobacter, E. coli and Salmonella—makes it safe for human consumption. The food safety website from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states, “Raw milk can carry harmful bacteria and other germs that can make you very sick or kill you.”

Cheese rounds that have been inoculated with mold cure in the aging room to produce Chapel’s Country Creamery, “Bay Blue” cheese. (USDA photo by Bob Nichols)

Cheese rounds that have been inoculated with mold cure in the aging room to produce Chapel’s Country Creamery, “Bay Blue” cheese. (USDA photo by Bob Nichols)

Nonetheless, most states have passed an array of regulations that permit access to raw milk. In 2004, raw milk was illegal in 19 states and that number has gradually shrunk to just five in 2019. No state has moved to further restrict the raw milk licensing, and several inched their way toward increased access in 2018, according to the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund.

As of January 2019, 12 states have legalized retail sales, while 16 states allow on-farm sales of unpasteurized milk. Eight states permit herd share agreements, where people “buy” an ownership stake in a cow from the farmer and are entitled to the milk it produces. And in four states raw milk can only be sold as pet food.

Currently, West Virginia’s Farm Fresh Raw Milk Act calls for reversing the ban on raw milk sales through herd shares. Massachusetts, which allows on-farm sales, is considering a bill that would permit delivery of raw milk, increasing sales opportunities for small-scale dairies in the state.

Despite dire warnings and legal hurdles, Americans’ taste for unprocessed, fresh-from-the-cow milk appears to be widespread and growing in popularity among well-educated, health-conscious consumers. While there is no national data on raw milk consumption, a frequently cited 2007 CDC survey put raw milk consumption at 3 percent of the U.S. population at the time.

But recent data from state licensing agencies indicates that the market has grown significantly since then. For example, in Washington state, where it’s legal to sell raw milk in stores, there were six raw milk licensed dairies in 2006. Now there are 32, according to the state department of agriculture. The number of permits for on-farm sales in New York state grew from 12 to 37 during the same time period. In other states, like Montana, state agencies have created agreements to look the other way.

On the sales side, California’s largest raw milk dairy, Organic Pastures, which has products available in 450 stores, reported an 18 percent growth from January 2018 to 2019. Other independent dairy producers, including The Family Cow, have maxed out their milk production to meet the robust demand.

There is also a bustling illegal trade in raw milk with several high profile FDA busts for distributing the substance across state lines. The most recent raw milk scandal involves the investigation of a brucellosis exposure from a single cow on an unlicensed Pennsylvania farm whose milk was traced to 19 states.

The Question of Safety

The public thirst for raw milk roils health authorities, heightening the CDC’s public health campaign to warn people away from “raw milk myths” and the “real dangers” of the product. Of particular concern is the fact that illnesses contracted from raw milk can be severe with complications, and they tend to disproportionately affect children under the age of five.

rows of bottles of raw milk

The official hardline position that no raw milk is safe to drink rests on a study of outbreaks between 2007 and 2012. The CDC concluded that outbreaks associated with drinking unpasteurized milk are higher in states that permitted raw milk sales and lower in states where raw milk sales were prohibited. But some advocates point to a 2018 study published by the journal PLoS that makes a different argument. In that case, the researchers analyzed outbreaks from unpasteurized milk using CDC data from 2006 to 2016 by state and found that total outbreaks attributed to raw milk had actually fallen during the 12-year period by 74 percent.

Further, the evidence did not support any correlation between legalization and increased outbreak rates. “Indeed, examining data up to and including 2016 shows that increased legal access after 2010 has been concurrent with generally declining outbreak rates, irrespective of change in consumption,” the authors wrote.

This year so far the CDC has reported outbreaks of Listeria in pork products, E. coli in romaine lettuce, and Salmonella in tahini. Raw milk advocates point out that leafy greens are the most frequent cause of outbreaks (defined as any food-borne illness affecting two or more people), but they also make the point that no one is calling on Americans to stop eating salads.

But government officials insist that milk is different. “The thing you have to remember about milk is that it is a wonderful media for bacterial organisms to grow and thrive in. It makes it a little bit different than a head of lettuce,” says Dr. Bill Barton, Idaho State Department of Agriculture administrator and state veterinarian.

Marion Nestle, author and professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, has written frequently about the debate over raw milk. “The issue with outbreaks caused by pathogens in raw milk is that the pathogens are almost entirely killed by pasteurization—making those outbreaks almost entirely preventable,” she told Civil Eats via email. “It’s much harder to prevent outbreaks due to lettuce or meat.”

Proponents for raw milk are quick to point out that that no food is guaranteed to be safe and pasteurized milk has caused its own outbreaks, including a 2007 Listeria outbreak in Massachusetts that caused three deaths.

“Raw milk is riskier than pasteurized milk,” said Nestle. “How much riskier? It’s hard to say, although a [PLoS] paper says that trends are in a safer direction. I suspect that’s because raw milk producers are being more careful about food safety procedures and maybe even doing some testing, which is all to the good.”

State Regulations and “Food Freedom”

Idaho, the third-largest dairy-producing state in 2010, is an interesting example of a place where producers and lawmakers are working together to reduce risk. The Idaho legislature passed new dairy regulations to allow small herd permits and herd share programs. “We weren’t naïve enough to think raw milk wasn’t being sold prior,” said Dr. Bill Barton, Idaho State Department of Agriculture administrator and state veterinarian.

Chapel’s Country Creamery owner Holly Foster in Easton, MD has to constantly stir the milk curd of fresh raw milk so the milk curd does not set until whey has separated from the curd. (USDA photo by Bob Nichols)

Chapel’s Country Creamery owner Holly Foster in Easton, MD has to constantly stir the milk curd of fresh raw milk so the milk curd does not set until whey has separated from the curd. (USDA photo by Bob Nichols)

There are 109 licensed herd share licensed farms out of a total of 460 dairies, according to Barton. Each type of dairy license mandates regular facility inspections, milk testing, and herd testing for brucellosis and tuberculosis. Idaho also allows Grade A dairies to sell unpasteurized milk to stores, which are subjected to the same federal PMO standards as any other conventional dairy.

Idaho is on the leading edge of state regulations that give farmers more ways to produce, distribute, and sell raw milk. “We don’t necessarily take a position on whether it’s safe or not,” says Barton. “Our role as an agency is a regulatory role. We administer a raw milk program.”

The national shift away from the FDA’s prohibitions toward legalization stems from sustained pressures on state legislators to provide consumers with freedom of choice, part of the farm-to-table movement that’s led to a number of cottage food laws and food sovereignty movements.

“Our position is that people should be able to choose what they eat,” says Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund’s McGeary, who notes that recent regulatory changes have been hard fought by the mainstream dairy industry and health authorities. The organization is joined by a legion of “food freedom” advocates who accuse the government of maintaining a double standard when it comes to the only food banned from interstate commerce.

“Fluid raw milk is the only food category where anything less than perfectly safe is unacceptable and where governments attempt to ban it,” Joseph Heckman, a soil science professor at Rutgers University who writes about organic agriculture, told Civil Eats via email. A resident of New Jersey, which is the only state that has banned raw milk outright, Heckman sees the disconnect. And he travels to Pennsylvania and elsewhere to buy raw milk for his family.

Mark McAfee is president and chairman of Raw Milk Institute (RAWMI), a non-profit created in 2011 to educate dairy farmers and promote risk-assessment management plans and production standards for raw milk. “There are some people who are really stuck on ‘Don’t tread on me,’ freedom at all costs,” he says. But the 18 farms approved by RAWMI, including The Family Cow, represent a segment of the industry committed to education, training, and rigorous food safety standards.

The heart of the issue, according to both Heckman and McAfee, is the fact that all fluid milk is not the same: a dairy farmer producing milk for pasteurization follows a different set of production practices than a farmer selling milk to bottle for customers. “The FDA does not differentiate raw milk produced for people … versus raw milk produced for the pasteurizer,” McAfee says. “It is politically expedient to just trash all raw milk.”

McGeary sees the discussion as broader than food safety. She points to fact that FDA has no incentives to change long-standing laws and regulations that benefit large producers and retailers. “The problem is they aren’t really thinking about how small farms should address safety,” she said.

Building a Local Economy

Every week, Oregon farmer Charlotte Smith of Champoeg Creamery supplies 100 families with raw milk sold out of a farm stand 30 miles south of Portland, Oregon. State law limits Smith to milking just three cows, so she always has a waiting list. But the income is enough, supplemented by eggs and chickens, to support this fifth-generation farm year-round.

“I milk three cows and my neighbor who milks 300 cows could probably make as much money as me if he sold all his cows and milked three,” she says. In fact, Smith has become so successful at direct-to-consumer marketing that she’s turned her expertise into a side business called 3Cows Marketing to help other independent farmers of all kinds learn how to become profitable. One client selling raw milk in Michigan is helping pull her family’s conventional dairy farm out of debt.

Smith is also seen as a hero of the raw milk movement. She began producing it 10 years ago in hopes of healing her children’s severe eczema, and when it worked, she began championing its health benefits. Although the health claims from drinking raw milk remain roundly discounted within the American health community, her customers tend believe that it has a range of nutritional and medicinal qualities.

Smith is ready to take anyone on a tour of her tidy, hay-scented milking barn, to demonstrate the protocols, safety standards, and bacterial tests she runs routinely. “When you produce milk the way I [do], you’re going to get safe raw milk 100 percent of the time,” Smith says. “We have hundreds of checks in place to make sure that happens.”

Smith tests her milk for pathogens monthly, although Oregon regulations don’t require it. There are also significant advancements in testing technologies available to farmers. According to McAfee of RAWMI, results that used to take several days are now possible within 11 hours. Organic Pastures has instituted testing protocols that he insists make the milk “ultra-low risk.”

Jersey and Holstein cows of Chapel’s Country Creamery in Easton, MD graze on grass at the farm. The dairy produces artisanal cheeses with high quality fresh raw milk, rich in cream.

Jersey and Holstein cows of Chapel’s Country Creamery in Easton, MD graze on grass at the farm. The dairy produces artisanal cheeses with high quality fresh raw milk, rich in cream. (USDA photo by Bob Nichols)

“Anybody selling to the public is going to want to embrace this technology because it gives you information that’s forward looking,” he adds. But government officials are unconvinced that there is any way to test for pathogens in a way that ensures the milk is safe to drink.

Farmer Edwin Shank disagrees. In 2012 and 2013, his operation was linked to an outbreak of Campylobacter. In response, Shank built an on-farm laboratory and instituted a test-and-hold protocol to ensure that the milk tests at levels at or below the federal standard for pasteurized milk. “We do milk totally different from the way we used to,” Shank says.

The milk that leaves the farm is below the federal PMO standard for Grade A milk. “The FDA is setting the standards of what they believe is clean and safe milk. How can they use the same standard and say ours is not safe?”

Heckman argues that it’s high time to reevaluate the blanket opposition to unpasteurized milk.

“More progress towards food safety can be accomplished by providing education and training programs for dairy farmers,” he said, adding that universities and extension offices could play a role in providing the education and resources to mitigate the risks.

In the process, such a shift may help more farmers to find real economic sustainability. For Shank, the shift to selling raw milk is allowing him to begin passing a profitable business on to his six children. “It’s not a walk in the park,” he says. “But there’s no way my boys would have stayed on the farm if it stayed the way it was in 2008, when there was no future in it.”

 

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly attributed the PLoS study to the National Library of Medicine. 

View Comments (9)

  1. Tuesday, March 12th, 2019
    Thanks for shedding light on the value of raw milk for consumers with this excellent article!

    Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance works on the behalf of farmers and ranchers nationwide to lobby for sensible ag legislation.

    We have a bill to legalize raw milk sales at farmers' markets and direct-to-consumer in Texas right now. We've been fighting for dairy farmers' right to sell direct-to-consumer since 2011, and we need your help encouraging legislators to listen to their constituents and local food producers.

    Read more about or work at FarmandRanchFreedom.org, and follow us on Facebook for current news, where we're sharing this article with our followers.
  2. Tuesday, March 12th, 2019
    Thanks for a balanced and constructive article about raw milk. Doesn’t happen too often in MSM. Raw milk could save the dairy industry, if dairy farmers opened their minds a tad.
  3. Trish Tonks
    Tuesday, March 12th, 2019
    Look folks, the conventional factory farmed dairy cow lives through hell and has her newborn calves routinely stolen away from her which causes so much hearbreak for both mom and her baby so humans can take the milk intended for her calf . This an injustice ! And we have all been lied to from the dairy industry for years that this milk is good for us and our bones . They are even so bold as to say the we NEED milk ! Think about it , would any other creature in nature NEED the milk of another species ? Of course not ! And cows milk is of course designed for baby cows to turn into large mammals very quickly with more protein and fat that would ever be good for human consumption . Human breast milk in comparison is very low in protein .
    So we have been duped and now know we dont need this milk and it is even bad for us because of all the hormones, fat , high protein , and the accumulation of toxic chemicals that are concentrated in the milk .
    So now you want to promote Raw Milk ! Something that is not even good for us to begin with , and cruel because we steal it from the baby it was intended for , and now you want to do it with an even HIGHER RISK !
    You know how you drink cows milk without risk ? The only way it was intended to be drank - right from the mothers teet . But you are not a baby cow so back off people ! Leave these sweet docile animals alone ! More and more people like me have woken up to the ridiculousness and harm of this terrible " business". Human children need human milk . But no human adult , or adult mammal of any species needs milk . This inhumane business will end , hopefully soon for the cows sake and we will look back and have regret about the arrogance of our human species to commodify another living being on this earth as our slaves .
  4. PainterArtistFIN
    Tuesday, March 12th, 2019
    As of March 12_2019,
    Can we be provided with the latest LIST OF STATES which allow the sale of raw whole milk to the public, away from our farm.
    Thank you.
  5. Henry
    Tuesday, March 12th, 2019
    Herein lies the concern: "pathogens are almost entirely killed by pasteurization."

    Remaining pathogens are likely the only microbiology left alive, and with nothing else to compete with will surely take over and flourish. When you want to grow a culture in a lab, what's the first thing you do? You sterilize the medium.
    • Joseph Heckman
      Tuesday, March 12th, 2019
      The more heat milk the greater the risk:
      Responding to Bioterror Concerns by Increasing Milk Pasteurization Temperature Would Increase Estimated Annual Deaths from Listeriosis
      Journal of Food Protection, Vol 77, No. 5, 2014, Pages 696-705.

      “Conservative estimates of the effect of pasteurizing all fluid milk at 82 C rather than 72 C are that annual listeriosis deaths from consumption of this milk would increase from 18 to 670, a 38-fold increase”
      (page 703) “These changes to the potential for outgrowth have been calculated to increase the risk of death from listeriosis due to consumption of pasteurized fluid milk by approximately 40-fold. Such an increase would have an appreciable public health impact if all milk in the United States were processed according to the increased pasteurization temperature based on the fact that milk is estimated to be responsible for approximately 18 listeriosis deaths per year in the United States."
  6. Mark Mcafee
    Tuesday, March 12th, 2019
    Bravo RAWMI, Charlotte, Dr Heckman, and Edwin.... bravo!
  7. Wednesday, March 13th, 2019
    You better be extremely careful selling raw milk. Have you been testing each cows milk for listeria? Are you aware that pregnant women should never drink raw milk? I was a dairy farmer and we were drinking our raw milk, I went into early labor and delivered a 3lb baby who had a listeria infection in the womb from me because I drank our raw milk . My baby died. Listeria caused him to have seizures which caused a brain bleed. You are really stupid if you sell raw milk, especially to pregnant women who small children. You could get sued, and I hope you do. It's very irresponsible.
  8. Saturday, March 16th, 2019
    Nice article. It's important to have focus on raw milk sales, it's a natural right of farmer to be able to sell as it is to the end consumer and other way a natural right of a consumer to get a fresh milk in a raw form with undisturbed milk content.

    Here, in India, we farmers could sell milk straight to the consumers irrespective of any government intervention and that too without any taxes on it!

    I personally think, milk is more intelligent to deal with bacterias, if bacterial content is grown than a certain % it turns spoilt when heated or it turns spoilt without heating when too too much bacterial presence.