Got (raw) Milk?

A state bill aims to legalize the sale of the unpasteurized frorm, which some Marylanders prefer, but strong concerns persist about safety

February 16, 2009|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,

The cows, about 75 of them, graze and enjoy an unseasonably warm day on the 260-acre Bellevale farm in Baltimore County, about 20 miles north of downtown. It's a few hours until milking time.

Together they produce hundreds of gallons of raw milk that is sold to organic milk producer Horizon for about $3 a gallon. It's pasteurized and turned into cartons sold at the grocery store. Part of farmer Bobby Prigel thinks that's a shame.

There are enough people in Maryland who would pay $6 a gallon or more for the unpasteurized, or raw, milk directly from him - if that were legal. State health officials say raw milk is dangerous because it can carry E. coli, salmonella and other nasty bacteria, and has already made many people around the state and nation sick.

"It would be easy for me to sell it," said Prigel, a fourth-generation dairy farmer who drinks the milk from his cows. "I wouldn't have to change a thing."

Raw milk consumers are a small and not-yet-mainstream faction of a larger movement of people who have turned to food grown locally, organically and unadulterated by excessive processing in an effort to lead a healthier lifestyle. They reject the safety warnings because they believe raw, also called "real" or "fresh," milk is more nutritious.

Many are getting it from illicit drop-off sites set up by farmers in Pennsylvania, where it's legal.

The demand has reached such a pitch that Del. J.B. Jennings, a Republican who represents Baltimore and Harford counties and who recently gave up cattle farming to join the military, introduced legislation Friday to make it legal for farmers to sell raw milk to consumers who buy a share in one of their cows. It's legal in Maryland to drink the milk if you own the cow, but the state has refused in the past to allow such "cow shares."

He is the third Maryland legislator to offer a bill in three years. He believes the bill will have more support than ever, though its prospects for passage remain slim.

The General Assembly has already approved a pilot program that will allow a handful of Maryland farmers to sell cheese made from raw milk as long as it's aged 90 days, a process that mimics pasteurization. Three farms are expected to begin selling the cheese in the spring or summer. A small amount of raw-milk cheese made in Pennsylvania with Maryland milk is already available in local stores.

"I'm not getting into the debate about whether raw milk is good or bad for you," Jennings said. "It's about choices. And people are already drinking it."

Jennings said the legal sale of raw milk will be a boost to a small number of Maryland dairy farmers who would want to sell it from their farms. Unpasteurized milk has a shorter shelf life and wouldn't likely be sold in retail grocery stores.

More immediately, it would make legal the actions of Marylanders who are using one of the 10 or so delivery sites in the region found by word-of-mouth or on the Internet. Area moms say a gallon of raw milk sells for between $6 and $10 a gallon, far more than the $3.50 a gallon regular milk was selling for at area groceries last week, but closer to the $3 to $4 a half-gallon of organic milk costs.

Supporters claim the heat of pasteurization kills nutrients and good bacteria, though public health experts say raw and pasteurized milk are nutritionally the same. Some supporters also believe that raw milk has other health benefits, including improved behavior in children; improved health of those with osteoporosis, cancer, asthma and allergies; and better development of fetuses and babies. Health experts say such assertions aren't true.

Liz Reitzig, a Bowie mother of four, is one of the believers. Mornings in her house include fruit, reading, the occasional cartwheel and, always, glasses of raw milk. She has been buying raw milk for four years and feeds it to her children, from 6 months to 6 years. The famile goes through six to 12 gallons a week.

She declined to discuss drop-off sites in the state but said she would prefer "to buy products from the producers of my choice in Maryland."

That would be good for her and good for the environment, she says, because the milk wouldn't travel as far, and good for the state's economy because her money would stay here.

Reitzig also said she knows of no one who has been sickened by raw milk, but notes that other legal foods have caused illnesses, including packaged spinach, which was blamed for a 2006 outbreak of E. coli, and peanut butter, which has been blamed for the current outbreak of salmonella.

"What about deli meat or hot dogs?" she said. "You're so much more likely to get sick from those. There's a bias against fresh milk."

She said she'd keep working for legalization as president of the Maryland Independent Consumers and Farmers Association, which promotes local farm-to-consumer goods.

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