RALEIGH — Selling unpasteurized milk has been illegal in North Carolina for three decades. But that hasn’t stopped growing numbers of families around the state from going to extreme lengths to obtain it.
Some travel to South Carolina, where it’s legal to sell raw milk, and bring it home. Others contract with Pennsylvania farmers, secretly arranging delivery to dozens of “drop sites” in cities including Raleigh, Durham, and Cary. So heavy is the demand that one private food club is in the process of establishing drop sites in eight new cities, including Asheville, Charlotte, and Wilmington.
The growing demand from North Carolina has been a boon to farmers in nearby states. For example, an Amish farmer from Pennsylvania has seen his raw milk sales increase 25 percent over the past two years, in part because North Carolina has become one of his largest sources of customers.
The sale of raw milk for human consumption has been illegal in North Carolina since 1983, and in 2004, the state outlawed cow-shares, which allowed people to purchase joint ownership in a cow and share its milk. Since then, local producers of raw milk have become scarce, and those that remain have become extremely careful about selling to customers they don’t know.
South Carolina and Pennsylvania are two of 25 states where selling raw milk is legal to some degree — either from a farm, in farmers’ markets, or in grocery stores. An increasing number of North Carolinians are obtaining unpasteurized milk from those states.
Public health officials warn of potential dangers from consuming unpasteurized milk, including the risks of contracting debiliatating bacterial and intestinal infections. But consumers say raw milk offers a healthier alternative to its pasteurized counterpart. And critics of the ban on raw milk sales say individuals should be able to decide which risks they are willing to accept.
The Amish farmer wishes to remain anonymous. Carolina Journal interviewed his brother, who works on the farm and also asked not to be named. The brother said the farm sells to nearly 150 customers in North Carolina. Consumers in the Tar Heel State have banded together to cover the cost of sending a refrigerated truck to pick up goods from the farm once a month, which in addition to raw dairy products include meats, vegetables, and bread. The truck delivers to a central location, where volunteers divvy up the food and deliver it to their hometowns.
The farmer, like many who sell raw milk, has seen other Amish farms raided and sometimes shut down. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration prohibits the interstate shipment of raw milk, and even though he’s not transporting it, he could be prosecuted for participating in an illegal enterprise.
The farmer, producing food the way his family has done for generations, does not meet the profile of the typical “criminal.” His customers see him as a hero, participating in an underground railroad of sorts, giving modern-day people access to good, old-fashioned food.
The farmer’s brother said he is not ashamed of what they are doing. “We’re not trying to do any of this in secret or in darkness.”
He understands FDA regulations prohibit people from buying his milk and taking it across state lines for resale, but he believes people have a constitutional right to do so. He said laws against selling raw milk are “quite corrupt.”
“We’re excited about the future, and trust in God, that if it’s His will, the government will leave us alone so we can continue to provide the real food,” he said.
North Carolina has some of the nation’s strictest laws against the sale of raw milk. It cannot be sold at grocery stores or other retailers. Nor can farmers markets or dairy farms sell raw milk for human consumption. Raw milk can be sold as “pet’s milk,” but few farmers do so because they say the label sends red flags to regulators.
Those willing to take the risk tend to keep their operations small so they do not attract attention from law enforcement. The organizer of one underground buying club in the Triangle area has roughly 80 members. A Triad-area farmer said he recently purchased four more dairy cows from Pennsylvania to meet growing demand. He said he sells about 170 gallons a week to customers all over the state.
Consumers say they are willing to go to great lengths — including making long drives and paying high shipping fees — for raw milk because they believe it has a much higher nutritional value than most foods available today and can help with a host of ailments, including allergies, digestive problems, and heart disease.
State health director Jeff Engel and Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler disagree that raw milk has a higher nutritional value than pasteurized milk and warn of its dangers to consumers, including the risk of bacterial infection and even death.
“Raw milk may contain a wide variety of harmful bacteria — including Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, Campylobacter, and Brucella — that may cause illness and possibly death,” they said a Department of Health and Human Services press release.
“The harmful bacteria in raw milk can be especially dangerous for pregnant women, the elderly, infants, young children and people with weakened immune systems,” the release said.
Pasteurization, the officials said, eliminates harmful bacteria and slows microbial growth.
Risk vs. reward
But many North Carolina mothers said they don’t believe the warnings about harmful bacteria. They argue that raw milk from healthy cows is loaded with beneficial bacteria that actually fight off any harmful bacteria that may be present in the milk.
CJ surveyed several mothers who are members of the North Carolina Alliance for Raw Milk – who did not wish to be identified in this story – about why they use raw milk.
Many said their children cannot digest conventional milk. They said their children begin to tolerate lactose, which is altered by the pasteurization process, when they drink raw milk. Some mothers said they used raw cow or goat milk to supplement a low breast milk supply, against their physicians’ advice, if their babies could not tolerate store-bought formula.
One mother said rather than cause illness, she believes raw milk has helped her children grow healthier than most children their age.
Other critics of the raw milk ban say that people should have the right to decide if the risks of consuming raw milk are worth the potential benefits. Former Rep. Glen Bradley, R-Franklin, proposed legislation last year legalizing raw milk, but it died in committee.
In Congress, legislation allowing the interstate shipment of raw milk is introduced every year but has received little support. Meanwhile, a large raw milk dairy in California is suing the FDA over its ban on the interstate shipment of the product.
Sara Burrows is a contributor to Carolina Journal.