Got raw milk? It’s more popular, despite warnings


Long gone are the days of finding fresh, thick and creamy bottled milk at your doorstep.  But now some New Yorkers are returning to the farmer with the rise of the raw milk movement.

“Creamy and sweet are usually the first two words I use when I talk about raw milk,” said newly licensed raw milk farmer Sarah Chase.

Chase, 25, in a third generation farmer in Pine Plains, which is located in Dutchess County,  began dairy farming in March, raising her 30 cows on a grass-fed diet. She decided to sell milk “raw,” and not pasteurized, because she firmly believes there are health benefits (link : that include strengthening the immune system to ward off infection and a lower risk of developing asthma.

But state and federal health authorities are strongly against human consumption of raw milk. According to the state Department of Health, consuming raw milk leaves a person at risk for various bacteria infections including salmonella, E. coli, and listeria. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that since 1993, there have been two deaths and 185 hospitalizations as a result from the consumption of the milk. The two deaths are said to be related to a form of cheese.

New York State does permit the sale of raw milk on the farm as long as the farmer has a license from the state Department of Agriculture and Markets. A sign must also be posted at the point of sale that says, “Raw milk does not provide the protection of pasteurization.”

Chase takes pride in in the sign. “I’m glad it’s there because I can sell raw milk,” she said, laughing. “I feel lucky that I am in New York and I can get a license and sell it.”

Chase received her raw milk license from the state in September. “I would otherwise be giving myself a disadvantage in a commercial dairy farming world, but if I do it small scale and reach out to people that are interested in their health and the quality of a product then I can make a living and feel good about what I’m doing,” she said.

Selling her raw milk at $4 per half gallon, she aims to target the locals in Dutchess County by offering a product of quality at an affordable price. “But I will definitely be getting people from the city,” Chase said. “It also means I can get a premium for my product and it’s pretty hard to make a living dairy farming,” she said of her upstate farm.

Raw milk regulations vary from state to state. In New York, it is also illegal to cross the state line with the milk; however those associated with a milk club can purchase the milk from a farm upstate, for example, and bring it back to members in the city.

Chase comes from a town where people have been dairy farmers for a long time, but she is only the second person to have a raw milk business. “People around here don’t see the benefits. They are from a generation that would be saved from the creepy distillery theories of the ‘20s that were producing terrible milk that was actually dangerous, which is why pasteurization was started in the first place. “

Historically, drinking the milk unpasteurized was the way it was traditionally consumed. The milk is taken directly from the cow, bottled, cooled, and then consumed. The Food and Drug Administration mandated pasteurization of all milk and milk products for human consumption in 1987.  In the pasteurization process, harmful pathogens and micro-organisms that pose serious health risk are removed. Those who are pro-raw-milk argue that the pasteurization process kills the good bacteria, which leads to digestive problems as well as not strengthening immune system.

“We have some really good studies coming out of Europe that shows raw milk offers very strong protection against asthma, allergies, and skim problems like eczema,” said Sally Fallon Morell, the founder and president of Weston A. Price Foundation, a non-profit nutrition education foundation.

“Asthma kills nine people a day in this country,” Morell said. “Asthma side effects include stunted growth and weak bones. Side effects of raw milk are strong bones, strong growth.”

However, researchers found in a study published this month in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases that in over a decade, 21 people got food poisoning in five outbreaks linked to raw dairy products.

The raw milk movement has been going on and off for many years, but it was not until the Weston A. Price campaign that it picked up momentum. Morell started this campaign in 1999 because she believes the milk saved her children when she was unable to nurse. “It’s an extremely important food for growing children,” she said.

Nancy Huehnergarth, a nutrition and physical activity advocate and policy consultant in New York, said in an email that from a safety point of view, the consumption of raw milk is dangerous. “For some reason, some moms have gotten the idea that raw milk is good for their children. That’s a dangerous idea as children can easily become extremely sick from unpasteurized milk,” she wrote.

According to the CDC, from 1990 to 2006 there were 315 food-borne illnesses related to dairy products each year. That is equivalent to 1.3 percent of food-borne illness each year. From 2000 to 2007, there was an average of 100 illnesses per year from raw milk.

There was an average of 277 illnesses per year in relation to pasteurized milk, but many more people consume pasteurized milk as opposed to its counterpart. According to the Department of Agriculture and Markets, the number of state-approved raw dairy farms has doubled from 10 farms in 2005 to more than 20.

“I think that for some people who live sanitized lives, or people that [encounter] a whole different set of bacteria in their day-to-day lives like in the city maybe will have some trouble with raw milk,” Chase said. “I believe it is far healthier than pasteurized milk. I believe in giving people access to it. The risks are way tiny compared to the benefits and I feel that people are going to be learning that more and more.”

The market for raw milk has been growing about 25 percent per year. “I think the market has always been there; however, it is certainty growing. It is getting much bigger,” said Chase.

“We make jokes about it sometimes that raw milk is like the prom queen of the sustainable farming world. It has a lot of press. It has a lot of attention focused on it and people are excited about consuming it in certain circles.”

Shannon Nichols, the creamery operations manager at Hawthorne Valley Farm, said there is more awareness of raw milk’s availability. “I’ve seen more and more raw milk sales, more and more raw milk farms, more people purposely forming a farm to see raw milk—those kinds of kinds of things which you didn’t before,” she said.

Hawthorne Valley Farm is a 400-acre holistic and organic farm in Columbia County. Although most of its business is generated from local residents, when their order records show 12 to 15 half-gallon orders to be picked up, they know it is for those with summer homes in the area purchasing larger quantities to take back to the city.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that unpasteurized milk is 150 times more likely to cause food-borne illness. And while government agencies strongly warn consumers about the dangers of the milk, they have been able to work with the farmer who seeks licensing.

“The regulatory agencies are not there to get you, they are just there to protect the consumer. As long as you yourself are making a good, clean product, then you should have nothing to worry about,” Nichols said.  And while some New Yorkers favor their milk raw, others are strong opponents of both the sale of and consumption of the milk. “I’m hearing language in the background saying there’s some secret stuff going on that’s going to eliminate raw milk,” Nichols said.

Chase also had a positive experience working with the agencies. “There were lots of steps, but I ended up actually feeling more supported by the New York State inspectors then I had expected,” she said. “It’s not hard for me to meet standards and those inspectors are nice and will tell you conversationally what you need to do.”

Morell said that the federal government opposes the retail sale of the product because of the influence of the dairy industry. “But I think even more because of the pharmaceutical industry because the way we recommend producing raw milk is a system that doesn’t use antibiotics,” she said. Antibiotics are used most widely on animals.

On Monday, the journal Pediatrics published a statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which strongly advised pregnant women and children to not consume unpasteurized milk or eat cheese made from it. The journal also support a nationwide ban on raw milk sales.

Photo: Cara, one of Sarah Chase’s favorite cows, out on the pasture at Chase’s Dutchess County farm last summer.


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