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Raw milk movement grows amid push to ease regulation

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As the raw milk fad continues to grow, debate over the health attributes of raw milk is heating up amid lawmakers. (AP)

Jessie Grinnan, a stay-at-home mom from Palm Beach County, Fla., pays $13 a gallon for milk – and she couldn't be happier about it. 

Grinnan drinks raw, unpasteurized cow's milk that she buys at a local farm. “It’s a full milk,” she says, “so it’s not watery and it’s not bland. It’s delicious, actually, and I’m not a huge milk drinker.”

Called “moonshine milk,” they’re buying it on farms sold as "pet food" or through a cow or animal share program.

Grinnan believes raw milk has health benefits. She says her husband couldn’t tolerate pasteurized milk and has found relief from his allergies since they switched to raw milk. She says she also doesn’t want her 23-month-old son drinking anything whose origins she can’t identify.

“I feel comfortable and confident giving it to my family. I’m very particular about where it comes from – it’s not some random miserable cow that’s lived in a box,” Grinnan says.

Fans of raw milk are going to extremes to get their hands on it, even if there are laws blocking the sale for human consumption. Called “moonshine milk,” they’re buying it on farms sold as "pet food" or through a cow or animal share program.

Florida is one state that blocks the sale of it in stores.

But there are some problems and liabilities surrounding the consumption of raw milk. 

The Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other government organizations say raw milk poses serious health risks.

According to the CDC, raw milk carries a host of germs that can make people sick, including bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli; parasites like Giardia and viruses like norovirus. It says the risk of getting sick is greater for babies and young children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.

"Raw milk can carry harmful germs that can make you very sick or kill you,” the CDC says on its website. “If you're thinking about drinking raw milk because you believe it has health benefits, consider other options." 

The American Association of Pediatrics, too, strongly opposes raw milk consumption. It released a policy statement last December advising pregnant women, infants and children to consume only pasteurized milk, cheese and other milk products, and it called for a ban on the sale of raw milk in the U.S.

Nonetheless, a budding raw milk fad and a populist call for less food regulation have created a movement to get lawmakers to ease longtime restrictions on the sale and shipment of milk straight from the cow.

Laws about raw milk differ widely by state. Twelve states allow it to be sold in retail stores, and it can be purchased in almost every other state on farms, as "pet food" or through a cow or animal share program.

Laws to limit restrictions on raw milk sales were introduced this year in several states, including Louisiana, Maryland and Massachusetts. In Washington, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) introduced two bills nationally: the “Milk Freedom Act of 2014,” which would overturn a ban on interstate shipment, and the “Interstate Milk Freedom Act of 2014,” which would allow shipment of raw milk between states where sales are legal.

Other states, including New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, have thriving black markets for raw milk, says Sally Fallon Morell, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nutrition foundation that advocates for nutrient-dense whole foods. 

Proponents of raw milk cite European research including the 2007 PARSIFAL study and the 2011 GABRIELA study demonstrating that unpasteurized milk from cows, sheep and goats provides a wealth of health benefits, including protection from asthma and allergies. They also refer to testimonials from people who say it helps heal osteoporosis, arthritis, digestive problems, fatigue, weight issues and even cancer.

They say the government’s stance is out of date and is designed to protect the status quo for milk processors. 

“[The opposition] is really based on a paradigm that no longer has credibility, and that is that everything has to be sterile and that the body has to be sterile,” Morell says. “We now know that to be healthy we have to have lots of good bacteria inside of us. Raw milk is such a great food – it provides the components that we need to support good bacteria in the gut.”

Pasteurization heats milk to temperatures high enough to annihilate risky bacteria, but raw milk supporters say the process also destroys all the good bacteria and digestive enzymes that are necessary for gut health and anti-allergenic properties.  Milk producers say there’s no scientific evidence to support claims that the pasteurization process has any negative effect on the milk. 

According to the CDC, there were 2,384 illnesses, 284 hospitalizations and two deaths attributed to raw milk or raw milk products from 1998 through 2011. The two deaths were not caused by liquid milk, but by a Mexican-style queso fresco (a.k.a. “bathtub cheese”). 

Critics note that there also were 2,181 illnesses, 32 hospitalizations and four deaths in those same years due to pasteurized milk and milk products.

But it is not a fair comparison. A FoodNet survey conducted by the CDC in 2007 found that only 3 percent of Americans said they drank raw milk.

Major milk industry groups are staunchly opposed to raw milk consumption. The International Dairy Foods Association and the National Milk Producers Federation recently penned a joint letter to state senators in South Dakota urging the rejection of legislation designed to ease restrictions on its sale. The letter stated, "Consumption of raw milk is a demonstrated public health risk. The link between raw milk and foodborne illness has been well documented in the scientific literature, with evidence spanning nearly 100 years. Raw milk is a key vehicle in the transmission of human pathogens, including E. coli O157:H7, Campylobacter, Listeria monocytogenes, and Salmonella."

Raw milk supporters say the claims of danger from unpasteurized milk are widely exaggerated. “And so much of this (raw) milk is not regulated,” Morell says. Referring to the numbers of illnesses, she says, “We think that could come down to almost zero if there were regulations.”

In California, where the sale of raw milk is legal and heavily regulated, Organic Pastures Dairy sells to 625 stores, 50 buyer's clubs, 20 farmer's markets and an estimated 80,000 customers a week, says founder Mark McAfee. 

He says customers are clamoring for it, and his farm can’t keep up with the demand.

“People are choosing raw milk or no milk or almond milk because of the allergenicity of pasteurized milk. It’s the single most allergenic food in America,” he says.

McAfee cites the PARSIFAL study, a 2007 European analysis of 14,893 children aged 5-13 that showed the consumption of raw milk may offer protection against asthma and allergies.

He and Morell agree that research and regulations like the ones in place in California are key ingredients for the safe consumption of raw milk. 

“There’s been a real stigma against studying it for fear you’ll lose your funding,” Morell says.

Supporters want to see the laws change so consumers can purchase -- and drink -- what they please.

“People are tired of the government telling them what they can do and what they can’t do,” says Morell.

But opponents say raw milk is not a prescription for good health.

“There’s no scientific reason in 2014 to even consume raw milk,” says Dr. Jatinder Bhatia, MD, FAAP, co-author of AAP’s policy statement.

“If you want to drink it, it’s a personal choice, that’s not for me to question. But if you get sick from raw milk, if you get E. coli for example, you then have the potential to give it to your children and husband ... it’s not only you, it’s those around you as well. If you’re pregnant and you do this, you put your fetus at risk.”