A Look Inside the 'Raw' Milk Underground

By Nicole Bode on December 16, 2010 2:55pm 

The half-gallon containers look like they could have contained any milk, but in this case, it was unpasteurized milk.
The half-gallon containers look like they could have contained any milk, but in this case, it was unpasteurized milk.
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DNAinfo/Nicole Bode

By Nicole Bode

DNAinfo Senior Editor

MANHATTAN — It didn’t look like a batch of groceries that could get someone in trouble.

I inspected the cardboard box full of two half-gallons of milk, two cartons of eggs and a white plastic bag with some chicken livers inside. All of the goods were straight from the farm, including the milk, which was "raw," or unpasteurized.

As the desire to put more organic and locally-grown food on dining room tables and restaurant menus grows, so too has the raw milk trend, resulting in milkshares like the one I attended.

I was picking the items up for a friend, and while I wasn't up on my raw milk regulations, I remembered the FDA’s raid over the summer on a California organic grocery store that sold it and the ensuing parody that landed on the "Colbert Report" as a result.

So I wasn’t completely sure what I would find when I entered the Manhattan office space hosting the farm delivery service pickup last week.

When I squeezed into the small room where we were supposed to pick up the goods, I found an undramatic scene.

As volunteers bustled to fill boxes with items plucked out of ice chests on the floor, I walked towards the dozens of cardboard boxes with fresh food packed inside. I picked up the box with my friend’s name on it, hefted it against one side of my body, and checked off the pickup with the volunteer at the checkout table.

It was just like going grocery shopping, except that the farmer responsible for the goods was wandering around the room with us. I thought about how it would look if all the farmers responsible for my weekly shopping trips to Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s suddenly showed up in the aisles as I shopped. It was sort of how I imagine my grandparents’ generation would have shopped, in a time when the only "Fresh Direct" delivery trucks were driven by the milkman.

In this case, though, the milkman could have had his entire truckload confiscated and destroyed on the spot.

According to New York state law, consumers are free to buy raw milk for human consumption on the condition that the farmer has been inspected and given a permit by the New York State Division of Agriculture and Markets, and that the consumer buys the milk while physically present at the farm that produced it. The farms also have rules about when they can bottle the milk, and they're supposed to be inspected monthly by the state and submit samples of their milk for tests for E. coli and other bacteria.

But milkshare clubs operate under a loophole in the law by having a third party transport the milk from the farm to the consumer, according to published reports on the process.

I should say for the record that I didn't drink my friend's milk, nor have I ever tasted raw milk. For what it's worth, I don't drink much pasteurized milk, either.

I appreciate the importance of wanting the government to have the tools and the laws they need to keep our food safe, and I don't have any nostalgia for the era when filthy, uninspected slaughterhouses inspired Upton Sinclair to write his expose The Jungle. Still, when I think about examples of how those efforts have sometimes failed, I wonder if punishing people who go out of their way to develop relationships with local farmers will bring New Yorkers any closer to safer food.

Many raw dairy fans defend unpasteurized milk, saying it retains vitamins and positive bacteria that get destroyed during the pasteurization process. They also say that once they've become acclimated to the taste of unpasteurized milk, it's hard to go back.

"I may get unlucky one of these days, but I doubt I'll die. I'm more concerned with chronic disease than with food poisoning, and sourcing high-quality, nutrient-dense animal products and eating some of them raw is my personal gamble for staying healthy, since I wouldn't rely on the medical community for that," explained a 26-year old woman who belongs to the club.

"Based on the numbers I could find, it appears to me that I am at a comparable risk of eating contaminated food whether I drink raw milk or not," added the woman, who said she's spent years drinking raw milk and converting it into yogurt and butter.

But opponents dismiss that rationale as a "bucolic fantasy" that endangers consumers' health and perpetuates a dangerous disregard for food safety.

"It is a common revisionist history for raw milk activists to talk about a return to the natural state of things, 'the way it used to be on the farm,' this bucolic fantasy," said Sarah Klein, staff attorney for the food safety program of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a DC-based organization.

"Raw milk is exactly as natural as raw manure," Klein added. "Sure, I cannot argue with you that it is not natural, but that doesn't make it safe. The purported benefits are simply not there. Its risks are so much greater than its benefits. This stuff is really dangerous."

Klein said that before the advent of pasteurization in the 1930s, an estimated 25 percent of all food-borne and waterborne disease outbreaks came from milk. Once pasteurization was introduced, she said, that number dropped to less than 1 percent.

As the push for local and organic farm goods has risen in recent years, Klein said raw milk advocates have "piggybacked" on the trend, expanding the number of people buying raw milk. She said there are no firm numbers on how many people currently drink raw milk, but estimated the figure is close to 3,000 nationwide.

One indication that the number is on the rise is that the incidence of disease outbreaks linked to unpasteurized dairy has risen in recent years, she said.

It's a tension that will only continue as the push for local, organic or otherwise "alternative" foods that come to customers outside of the mainstream, particularly in a place like Manhattan where greenmarkets are becoming as common as Starbucks.

I won't be running out to join a milk share anytime soon, if ever. But, like one of the raw milk aficionados, I think people deserve the right to do the research to decide for themselves.

"I get frustrated with all sources seeming biased, so I would recommend actively seeking out opposing viewpoints and comparing them to each other, rather than trusting one voice," said the raw milk fan. "These voices are much harder to find."

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