The raw deal on Virginia milk

retouched (6 of 4)The movement to return to nature has impacted many Americans. People are leaving the hustle and bustle of urban life for a more self-reliant life, and their palates are following suit.

One controversial dietary item is milk, specifically raw milk, which goes straight from the cow to the glass without pasteurization or homogenization. There’s a growing number of Americans who want it. Having the milk and drinking it is perfectly legal. Here in Virginia, and certainly many other places, the controversy comes from how you get an ice-cold glass of it.

You see, buying or selling raw milk, or milk that has not been pasteurized or homogenized, is illegal in Virginia. Why? Many health and government officials cite significant health concerns. An interview with Todd P. Haymore, Virginia’s Secretary of Agriculture & Forestry, explains. “Virginia’s

retouched (9 of 4)stance on human consumption of raw milk, expressed through current laws and regulations overseen and administered by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS), is that it is a potentially dangerous practice with serious health risks that can cause severe illness and even death, said Haymore. “Milk is an excellent medium for microbial growth and when it is not pasteurized, bacteria and other pathogens soon proliferate.”

Virginia farmer Josh Colvin drinks raw milk as he has his entire life. His wife, Anna, and their two children, Philip and Susanna, drink it as well. The Colvin family runs a family dairy farm in Fauquier County, Va., where they feed the cows, care for them, pay their veterinarian bills, and yes – milk them. In fact, he milks them for his family, and six others who share his herd. retouched (7 of 4)

You see, while it’s illegal to buy or sell raw milk, it’s certainly not illegal to own a cow, and in Virginia, and other places where the raw milk commodity market is spelled “contraband”, folks who want unfettered access to milk straight from the cow’s udders, have two choices. They can operate a dairy farm or, if their back yard isn’t quite ready for that kind of hoof action, buy just the cow, or even part of the cow, and let the farmer worry about feeding, housing and yes, milking their moo-moos.

The process is known as cow, or herd sharing and its proponents say it’s a win-win business decision. The cattle owners reap the benefits of owning the cows, like legal access to its fresh, raw milk, without having to shoulder the enormous financial costs inherent to dairy farming, and the dairy farmers who have the land, infrastructure and knowledge to host the cattle get a steady source of revenue well in excess of conventional dairy sales, while still being a fraction of the cost anyone outside the dairy industry would have to invest if they tried to keep and milk a cow, or worse a herd of cattle, on their own.

Farmers like Colvin understand the regulations and use cow and cow-herd sharing as a financial means to offset the costs of running a dairy farm. The raw milk his customers collect is merely a benefit of owning a cow, and the cow-share business model is a good practice for everyone, including the cow. “It’s a win for me and the cows,” said Fauquier County, Va., dairy farmer, Josh Colvin, who milks 43 head of dairy cattle and shares his herd with six families. Colvin said he began herd sharing because he couldn’t pay the bills to keep his family farm going with wholesale milk prices going for $2.30 a gallon. When he switched to cow sharing, the math on his ledger at the end of the month equated to revenue matching milk sold at $8.00 a gallon. “I don’t have to push the cows as hard to make a living,” said Colvin.

Profits and convenience aside, the biggest question in the world of cow sharing remains why would anyone want milk, which hasn’t been pasteurized or homogenized? “Why do people want raw milk? They don’t want the milk monkeyed with,” said Colvin. “I don’t want to trash my fellow dairy farmers because we all do a good job, I’m just giving people a choice.”

It’s a choice more and more people are making with raw milk as the answer. “We’re trying to eat healthier,” said Colvin herd-share customer Alex Johnson. “I got into herd sharing because I wanted to know exactly where my milk was coming from, and I couldn’t trust the guy who brings it to me any more than I do Josh.”

In fact, the number of advocates for raw milk continues to grow with piles of counter-arguments to local, state and federal officials about the health risks and health benefits of raw milk.

The Weston A. Prince Foundation, a nonprofit, tax-exempt charity founded in 1999 to disseminate the research of nutrition pioneer Dr. Weston Price, even chartered an Internet blog dedicated to raw milk advocacy, The blog is filled with scientific, legal and professional commentary, data and research chronicling the plight of raw milk drinkers not just in the United States but across the globe.

Colvin himself addressed concerns about consuming raw milk. “There’s common sense factor when it comes to raw milk,” said Colvin. “I know farmers who won’t drink the milk they get from their own tanks, and if the milk I get from my tank won’t go to my own house I won’t ship it. If you can’t say that as well then you have no business shipping milk, that’s my opinion.”

Regardless of the safeguards and standards of professional found in farmers like Colvin, Virginia’s government is aware of cow and herd sharing and it’s posture is best described as skeptical toward the business practice if it appears that the only reason for the cow or cow-herd sharing business arrangement is to loophole Virginia’s raw milk laws. “Almost all cow share arrangements are designed to allow the exchange of raw milk between a farmer and a consumer,” said Haymore. “Currently, there are a number of farmers throughout the Commonwealth who are distributing raw milk to individuals through animal or herd share plans or agreements.  These agreements are constructed with the intention of conferring ownership to participating individuals in an attempt to avoid having the distribution of the raw milk classified as a sale.  Although it may be possible to construct an animal or herd share agreement that confers true ownership to participating individuals, both the animal or herd share provider as well as those individuals who obtain raw milk products from them should be aware that not all animal or herd share ownership agreements are legal under current Virginia law.   Participants are encouraged to seek legal guidance to ensure any agreement represents true ownership of that animal.”

Still, Haymore won’t say Virginia is for or against cow or cow-herd sharing. “VDACS does not take a position on business practices of any kind as long as those businesses are operating legally,” said Haymore. “The agency does not endorse cow sharing when the practice is designed to subvert Virginia’s laws against selling raw milk.”

The raw milk debate isn’t heard only in Virginia. Across the nation, 29 states allow the selling of raw milk, which means 21 others don’t, and the local, state and federal agencies that support the consumption of raw milk, moreover the selling of it, are virtually non-existent because science makes a strong argument for pasteurization.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC), the nations foremost expert on keeping Americans healthy is crystal clear about the dangers of raw milk consumption. Quite simply, they say don’t do it. Publically available information on the CDC website said that among dairy product-associated outbreaks reported to CDC between 1998 and 2011 in which the investigators reported whether the product was pasteurized or raw, 79 percent were due to raw milk or cheese.

The CDC’s data gets even more specific by saying from 1998 through 2011, 148 outbreaks due to consumption of raw milk or raw milk products were reported to them. These reports, and we’re not talking about the likelihood of many more undocumented cases, resulted in 2,384 illnesses, 284 hospitalizations, and 2 deaths. The CDC said Escherichia coli, Campylobacter, Salmonella, or Listeria caused most of these illnesses. The CDC’s warnings strike at the heart of every parent when it reveals most raw milk disease outbreaks falls on the very shoulders of the people who advocates contend benefit from it the most, children. “It is important to note that a substantial proportion of the raw milk-associated disease burden falls on children; among the 104 outbreaks from 1998-2011 with information on the patients’ ages available, 82 percent involved at least one person younger than 20 years old,” the CDC wrote.

According to Real Raw Milk Facts, an Internet-based forum managed by legal and scientific experts dedicated to educating raw milk supporters and detractors alike with partisan facts about the controversial drink, in 1987, the FDA mandated pasteurization of all milk and milk products for human consumption, effectively banning the shipment of raw milk in interstate commerce with the exception of cheese made from raw milk, provided the cheese has been aged a minimum of 60 days and is clearly labeled as unpasteurized.

Federal law has something to say about raw milk as well. Uncle Sam addresses raw milk commerce with Federal Code 21 CFR Sec. 1240.61, which mandates pasteurization for all milk and milk products in final package form intended for direct human consumption. Virginia lawmakers mirror the federal governments ruling. “As noted earlier, the sale of unpasteurized milk and non-aged unpasteurized milk products is in violation of existing Virginia statutes,” said Haymore. “The consumption of unpasteurized milk products, also known as raw milk or raw milk products, can result in serious illness or death because they may contain disease-causing bacteria.” retouched (8 of 4)

While America’s farmers continue to find creative solutions to keep farms profitable, the all-natural trends of many citizens continue to push consumers away from processed foods, even when the governments insist the processing is done for their own safety.

The choice to drink raw or pasteurized milk is one any American has the freedom to make for his or herself, but how one acquires it remains a hot topic.


***   This article was published in a 2014 edition of New Pioneer Magazine ***


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