Dairy farmer Donald Dell opened the lid of his 2,000-gallon milk tank, peering at the creamy white liquid inside. The tank is kept full by tubes that run to the nearby pumping station, where his 150 Holstein cows come to be milked.
The Dells drink nothing but raw, unprocessed milk, straight from the tank. The family thinks that consumers should have the right to buy and drink nonpasteurized milk, too, and that the idea could help revive the state's ailing dairy industry, which has lost half of its milk producers in the last 15 years.
"The milk you buy at the store is hardly milk," said Dell's grandson, Gary Dell, who oversees operations at the family's 470-acre Cranberry Meadows dairy farm just outside Westminster. "It's been beat up, burned up, torn up and mixed back up again. I wouldn't be opposed to selling [raw milk] at all. [The industry] can't get any worse than it already is today."
Other dairy farmers say that selling raw milk to customers poses too much of a liability to their financially drained industry. And health advocates have concerns about the purity of milk that has not undergone bacteria-killing pasteurization.
A bill that comes up for a General Assembly hearing today would allow farmers to sell raw milk and related products.
The bill's lead sponsor, Del. Mary Ann Love, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, is joined by 15 other co-sponsors, including Republican Del. J.B. Jennings, a part-time beef producer who co-owns a Baltimore County feed store.
Unprocessed milk can be legally sold in 28 states, according to the Weston A. Price Foundation, a raw milk advocacy group based in Washington. Five other states allow raw milk to be sold as pet food, and a few of the remaining states, including Virginia, allow multiple owners to purchase a cow and share its milk. Maryland law forbids selling milk that has not been pasteurized. Neighboring Pennsylvania allows licensed farms to sell raw milk directly to customers and through retail.
Salmonella bacteria were detected about two week ago in raw milk sold by Stump Acres Dairy in Harrisburg, Pa., and three consumers were infected, according to a Pennsylvania Health Department spokesman who said no other raw milk contamination cases have been reported in the state in at least three years.
Stump Acres cannot sell milk again until laboratory tests and new inspections prove the product is safe, a Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture spokesman said.
Pasteurization was perfected in the 1920s to counter diseases found in raw milk because of unsanitary conditions in most mass-producing dairies, said Scott A. Rankin, a food science professor at the University of Wisconsin.
Although people continue to debate the merits of raw versus pasteurized milk, "the latter logic won out," Rankin said. "There's no way you can make raw milk that's free of pathogens. So we heat it."
Concerns about public health have led the federal Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to repeatedly warn consumers of the risks from nonpasteurized milk.
Advocates of raw milk products said the cream-topped beverage tastes better and contains good bacteria and enzymes, making it easier to digest, even for lactose-intolerant people. They say that during pasteurization, flash heating kills both helpful and harmful bacteria.
Mark McAfee, owner of Organic Pastures Dairy in California, and Liz Reitzig, representing the Price foundation, are scheduled to testify for the bill in Annapolis.
McAfee said his company ships raw milk products to states all over the country, including Maryland, labeling it pet food to circumvent FDA interstate commerce laws.
Representatives from the Maryland Farm Bureau and the state Health Department's division of milk control are scheduled to testify against the raw milk bill.
"We don't need to open up or expose people to a risk we know is dangerous, for whatever benefits," said Ted Elkin, head of the state's division of milk control. "When you have an outbreak, children are often affected. Their immune systems are not completely intact."
The risk that such milk could sicken a consumer is too great a liability for the ailing dairy industry to bear, according to the Farm Bureau.
"People stopped eating spinach when they had that E.coli outbreak out in California," said Valerie Connelly, the Farm Bureau's director of government relations in Annapolis. "If someone gets sick, it taints the whole industry."
Many of the farmers assembled for the Maryland Holstein Association convention in Westminster on Friday night also said the risk of being sued led them to oppose the raw-milk bill.
Unprocessed milk is in demand. People often stop by their farms, pleading for raw milk, farmers at the convention said.
The Iager family of Fulton in Howard County said it would continue to have the milk from its Maple Lawn Farms pasteurized . But more customer choice could bring profits to the lagging dairy industry, said owner Charles Iager.
"You should have some pasteurized, some nonpasteurized, and one more thing: pasteurized but not homogenized," Iager said. "That gives it the consistency of what bottled milk used to look like. I think the consumer would like to see the cream at the top."
Donald Dell, a former Carroll County commissioner, said he opposed the raw milk bill at first but that after giving it some thought, he changed his mind.
"He's talked me into it," Dell said of his grandson, Gary.firstname.lastname@example.org