Don’t even try to keep Bob Kleszics from his raw, unpasteurized milk.
Sure, he’s heard the warnings from the scientific community about the risk of food borne illness. But he’s not worried. In fact, he’s noticed a significant improvement in his health since he started drinking it eight years ago.
“I used to have severe sinus problems and allergies but that’s cleared up,” said Kleszics, 53, owner of Harvest Market Natural Foods in Hockessin and leader of the northern Delaware chapter of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes the benefits of a diet based on nutrient-dense foods, including raw milk. “And I’ve never had any type of illness or gastric upset. I will even drink it after it’s soured.”
Kleszics lives in Pennsylvania where it’s easy—and legal—to obtain raw milk. Not so in Delaware. While there are no laws against consuming raw milk straight from the source, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) slapped a ban on interstate sales back in 1987, leaving states to decide the issue for consumers within their borders. The result is a hodgepodge of laws and regulations. Delaware is one of eleven states where the sale of raw unpasteurized milk for human consumption remains illegal, according to the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund. Its sale for human consumption is also illegal in the District of Columbia.
Arguments for raw milk in Delaware
Harvest Market Foods owner and head of Northern Delaware chapter of Weston A. Price Foundation Bob Kleszics
Yet, despite the ban and evidence that raw milk carries health risks, demand is growing. A 2007 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that over nine million Americans regularly consume raw milk. Local farmers, markets and health food stores all report an uptick in demand for the product.
“We get four out of ten requests per week for raw milk,” said Jody Jones, secretary/treasurer of C&J Farms in Seaford. “Mostly it’s people with children. People are starting to care more about what they’re eating.”
What has people so heated up over milk? Until recently, there was no such thing as “raw milk.” Indeed, people drank natural milk long before the advent of pasteurization. But consuming industrially produced milk from the urban dairies of the mid-1800s was risky. As pastures grew scarce, these establishments began feeding their cattle waste grain from local distilleries. Cows became sick, producing poor-quality milk that, coupled with inadequate sanitation and refrigeration, caused a variety of health problems, especially among children. Pasteurization was seen as the solution.
Proponents of raw milk argue that the science supporting the need for pasteurization is outdated and that a back-to-nature approach to farming would make the process unnecessary. They believe that grass-fed herds raised in humane conditions do not harbor pathogens. Advocates also contend that pasteurization strips milk of important disease-fighting organisms and nutrients.
Public health officials and food safety experts find these views worrisome. Indeed, what proponents of raw milk call “life forces,” they call disease-producing bacteria.
“Most of the outbreaks with raw milk are associated with the bacteria called campylobacter jejuni,” said O. Sue Snider, professor of food safety and nutrition specialist at the University of Delaware. “One of the long-term consequences of that particular organism is that people can develop Guillain-Barre syndrome and that can have very devastating consequences.”
Moreover, the relatively recent discovery of a virulent strain of E.coli associated with raw or undercooked meats, produce, juice and milk in the early 1980s underscores the continued need for pasteurization, she said.
There is also no evidence to support claims of raw milk’s disease-fighting capability. In fact, pasteurized milk has virtually the same nutritional value as unpasteurized milk, said Snider. And while it is true that pasteurization does inactivate some enzymes in milk, these have no real function in the body. “It is not an issue at all,” she said.
Proponents point out that people growing up on farms have consumed raw milk all their lives without incident. “And that may be,” said Snider. “We do buildup a certain amount of resistance and immunity if we are exposed to those organisms over and over.”
The risks of raw milk
University of Delaware Animal and Food Sciences professor Dr. Sue Snider
Advocates also maintain that milk produced by “certified,” “naturally grown” or “local” dairies is safer than what is produced by large confinement dairies. But food safety experts say while adherence to good hygiene practices during milking is helpful, it is no guarantee that contamination will not occur. “We know that dairy cattle are one of the leading reservoirs of E.coli,” said Snider. “There are times when the cattle will not look like they’re sick, but they’ll be shedding the organism. Good sanitation is important but it cannot 100 percent guarantee that that particular milk is safe.”
Raw milk advocates counter by saying that no food is immune from the possibility of contamination and that raw milk poses far less a risk to public health than do other foods such as hamburgers. A report appearing in the current issue of the journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation shows that an individual is 35,000 times more likely to contract a foodborne illness from foods other than raw milk.
“It is irresponsible for senior national government officials to oppose raw milk, claiming that it is inherently dangerous,” said Dr. Ted Beals, a retired pathologist who conducted the research. “There is no justification for opposing the sale of raw milk or warning against its inclusion in the diets of children and adults.”
Indeed, raw milk advocates contend that the government crackdown has little to do with public safety.
“The health regulations are really economic regulations disguised as public health measures,” said Pete Kennedy, president of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, which has filed a lawsuit challenging the FDA ban on interstate sales. “Seventy percent of the antibiotics sold in this country go for animal usage and they mainly go into these big confined operations,” he said. “If you start a trend away from these confinement dairies toward smaller dairies, these aren’t the types of dairies that purchase antibiotics for their dairy cows.”
Kleszics believes larger dairies fear consumers might eventually come to view raw milk as the superior product. “They’ve got a semi-monopoly and they want to preserve it,” he said.
Delaware’s ban makes it tough for the consumer to obtain raw milk—but not impossible. Some suppliers and consumers have come up with creative ways to circumvent the law. For three years, Richard Swartzentruber supplied raw milk to customers who would later send donations to his Greenwood farm. “There was no money exchanged, so [the inspectors] were unable to pin us on that one,” said Swartzentruber who has long since sold his milk processing equipment. “Still, the pressure [from regulators] was increasing and increasing.”
He said that some of his clientele would drive in from as far away as Washington, D.C. and estimates that he routinely moved at least 100 gallons of raw milk per week. “We were moving about as much raw milk as we were pasteurized milk,” he said. “The pasteurized milk worked well as a cover for what we were doing.”
And while he would never encourage anyone to break the law, Swartzentruber said that one of the only ways for the consumer to get around the ban is “to know a dairy farmer or get to know one.”
Delaware does allow the sale of raw milk for animal consumption as commercial feed provided it’s labeled properly and producers admit they cannot be expected to know how the consumer will use the product once it leaves their premises.
Experts agree that it will take federal legislation to make sales of raw milk legal in Delaware. Ron Paul, the Libertarian-leaning Congressman from Texas and a Republican presidential candidate, has introduced legislation to rescind the FDA’s ban on interstate sales. If the legislation passes, it would take precedence over the Delaware law. And that could be a boon for the small organic farmer.
“It could open up another option,” said Michael Wasylkowski, small farm educator at Delaware State University. “You can sell for a lot more money organically. They could keep a couple of dairy cows and sell the milk and that would be a plus.”
Lewes Dairy says raw milk could become just another part of their regular product line. “Anything that promotes milk sales is good for any dairy,” said general manager Nevin Wynn.
Whether raw milk is safe or unsafe, brimming with health benefits or no more beneficial than the pasteurized variety, proponents feel they should have the right to consume it without governmental interference.
“You can take all the science on both sides about its being safe or unsafe,” said Kennedy. “The fact of the matter is it’s been around for thousands of years and it really comes down to a matter of choice issue.”