Mothers, teachers, doctors, and church members are meeting their dealers in barns and on back doorsteps, paying cash for an illicit substance they say they just can’t live without: raw milk.
Yes, that’s right, milk – unpasteurized, nonhomogenized, raw milk. It’s illegal to sell for human consumption in North Carolina and 24 other states.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says drinking it is like “playing Russian roulette” and the state epidemiologist compares it to “heroin” and “mercury,” but a growing number of raw milk junkies say they will travel any distance and pay any price to obtain it. Some are prepared to go to court to protect what they claim is a right to consume raw milk.
Pasteurized milk, they say, just isn’t the same. They say pasteurization kills good bacteria, destroys enzymes necessary for absorbing vitamins and minerals, and denatures fragile proteins.
Laura, a mother of four who does not want her last name published, started feeding her family raw milk 10 years ago in South Carolina, where it is legal. She got a tip that it might help her daughter, who suffered from lactose intolerance and irritable bowel syndrome.
After a few days on raw goat’s milk, Laura said all of her daughter’s symptoms disappeared. Not only could she digest the raw milk, soon she also could digest small amounts of pasteurized milk products. Laura attributes this to the enzyme lactase, which helps break down lactose and is killed during pasteurization.
When Laura moved to North Carolina, securing what she calls “real” milk got tricky.
At first she made 10-hour round trips to her friend’s farm in South Carolina every three months, loading her van with gallons of frozen milk. Later she bought her own goats, which she kept on a friend’s land and milked herself. This led to a “goat milk ministry.”
“I gave it freely to those in need,” Laura said.
Eventually she sold her goats and purchased “goat shares” instead.
Until 2004, the “cow share” program offered consumers a legal avenue to raw milk through partial ownership of a cow or goat, as there was no law against drinking milk from one’s own animals. People like Laura, who didn’t have the land or time to keep their own animal, paid a farmer to keep it for them. In exchange they got several gallons of milk each week.
Cow and goat ‘shares’ outlawed
But the state closed the “loophole” in the 11th hour of the 2004 legislative session.
A paragraph outlawing the “right to acquire [raw] milk through barter or contractual agreement … including the sale of shares in a cow, goat, or any other lactating animal” got tacked onto a lengthy environmental bill in the House that already had passed the Senate.
In 2007, raw milk activist Ruth Foster — who helps connect the state’s underground network of buyers and suppliers and spearheads legislative efforts to put raw milk back on the table — helped then-state Sen. Kay Hagan draft a bill to reverse the cow share ban. It passed the Senate but never made it to the House.
The ban leaves Laura only one legal option for obtaining raw milk — purchasing it under the moniker “pet milk.” Farmers can sell raw milk for pet consumption, as long as it is labeled as such and includes the warning “Not for human consumption” in half-inch lettering.
The farmers know their customers are not buying several gallons of milk — at $10 to $15 a gallon — for their cats, but they operate on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” basis, handing over the goods with a wink and a nod.
Even though they are within their legal rights to sell “pet milk,” farmers who do so constantly are harassed and sometimes raided.
The state Department of Agriculture adopted a rule in 2007 that would have forced farmers to dye raw milk grey, so families wouldn’t mix up the “cat’s milk” with the “people’s milk.” Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, wrote a bill that overturned the rule before it went into effect.
Also, the Ag Department has tried to force pet-milk producers to register as feed manufacturers, even though there is no law requiring it. The process adds costs and regulatory burdens many small dairy operations can’t afford. Most choose to operate under the radar to avoid the hassle.
Many pet-milk producers are small dairy farmers, who supplement their income from pasteurized milk by selling raw milk on the side. Others aren’t commercial farmers but simply rural homeowners who have a cow or goat in their backyards.
Most don’t advertise their product and often won’t admit they sell it at all. Those who do are targeted, Foster said.
It’s impossible to get your hands on the stuff unless you know somebody who knows somebody, Laura said. The “good news” about raw milk spreads very slowly by word of mouth to only the most trusted friends and family. While she’s converted several friends from church, she’s careful about whom she talks to. If word gets out to the wrong people, it could threaten her farmer’s anonymity.
Because demand is high and supply is low, many travel across state lines to stock up. But state and federal agencies are catching on and are stopping the traffickers in their tracks.
In 2009 a milk-buying club carpooled from Georgia to South Carolina and filled their van with several coolers of raw milk. Little did they know, they were being followed. As soon as they crossed the state line, agents from the Georgia Department of Agriculture and an agent from the FDA pulled them over and forced them to dump 110 gallons on the side of the road.
The Georgia consumers are now plaintiffs — along with consumers from North Carolina, Iowa, and New Jersey — in a lawsuit against the FDA for its interpretation of a federal law that bans the interstate shipment of raw milk.
The plaintiffs say neither they nor the farmers are breaking the law. The milk is sold in a state where it’s legal to sell, and consumed in a state where it’s legal to consume.
Pete Kennedy, a lawyer from the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, said the plaintiffs are waiting to see if a federal court in Iowa will hear the case.
The underground grows
In the meantime, demand for the contraband is on the rise. Foster said the more the government cracks down on raw milk the more media attention it gets, and the more converts it attracts.
Healthy, free-roaming, grass-fed cows produce healthy milk, Foster said. The milk is a living organism, she said, with its own immune system, armed with good bacteria that fight off bad bacteria.
State Epidemiologist Megan Davies said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reported were 85 outbreaks of human infections linked to raw milk between 1998 and 2008, sickening a total of 1600 people.
For Davies, raw milk is no laughing matter. She offered consumers a grave warning:
“If you develop bloody diarrhea, fever, or severe abdominal cramps, you should see your physician immediately, and if one of your children develops these symptoms, make sure they are tested for E. Coli, which can be fatal.”
Foster laughs at warnings like these. “We’re not scared anymore,” she said. “We’re drinking it, and we’re thriving. That’s why people are waking up to it.”
Sara Burrows is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.