NEW HOLSTEIN, Wis. — Despite potentially serious health risks, demand for unpasteurized, or raw, milk is growing among consumers concerned about chemicals, hormones and drugs.
With prices topping $5 per gallon, more dairies are selling raw milk — and finding themselves at odds with public health officials. The federal government and a majority of states prohibit sales of raw milk to the public, claiming it is responsible for hundreds of people sickened in the past decade with salmonella, E. coli, Listeria monocytogenes and other bacteria.
“Raw milk continues to cause outbreaks year after year,” said John Sheehan, who oversees plant and dairy food products for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “It is a concern for the FDA.”
More than 1,000 people, including two who died, got sick from raw milk or cheese made from raw milk from 1998 to 2005, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Pasteurization uses heat to destroy bacteria. It also extends the shelf life of milk. Proponents of raw milk contend the process destroys nutrients and enzymes and that raw milk is healthier.
“Raw milk is like a magic food for children,” said Sally Fallon, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates consumption of whole, natural foods.
Advocates dispute reports from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health agencies. They claim raw milk relieves allergies, asthma, autism and digestive disorders.
'Sick of being sick'
Pasteurization should not affect milk’s taste, texture or nutritional content, aside from a slight loss of vitamin C, said Robert Bradley, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who has worked in food science for 44 years.
However, the process can destroy proteins and enzymes that help the body absorb vitamins and digest lactose, said Michelle Babb, a registered dietitian who teaches at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Wash., which promotes natural and alternative medicines. High heat also can damage water-soluble B vitamins, she said.
People looking for raw milk began showing up at Kay and Wayne Craig’s organic farm in eastern Wisconsin five or six years ago. Many had digestive issues or other health problems.
“They’re sick of being sick, and they’re sick of the meds and the side effects, and so they’re looking for options,” said Wayne Craig, 50.
The couple had about 100 customers by the time they opened their store with organic products three years ago. Now they have about 800.
No government agency or group tracks raw milk sales nationwide. But in Washington state, the number of dairies selling raw milk to the public grew from six to 22 in the past two years. In Massachusetts, the number has more than doubled to 24 in the past five years even as the overall number of dairies has declined.
That prompted Wisconsin farmers, like those in a number of other states, to make a variety of arrangements to sell raw milk legally. Farmers have sold shares in their cows, herds and milk licenses.
Jane Ratajczak, 43, of Kiel, started buying raw milk from the Craigs after reading a book about natural cures. She now drinks four or five glasses a day and said she has noticed no ill effects.
“To me, it’s refreshing,” she said. “Just grab a glass of milk.”
The FDA, however, says “raw milk, no matter how carefully produced, may be unsafe.” More than 1,000 people, including two who died, got sick from raw milk or cheese made from raw milk from 1998 to May 2005, according to the most recent count from the federal Centers for Disease Control.
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