It could be ‘forever’:  Whole Foods and PCC Natural Foods pull raw milk from dairy departments

In an unexpected “super-sized” version of its announcement last month that it wouldn’t be selling any more raw milk until it developed a consistent set of national standards, Whole Foods has recently gone a step further and decided to discontinue raw milk sales altogether.

In its original announcement, the grocery giant had said it expected to be able to complete the process of coming up with a national set of standards “in short order.”  Signs in its dairy departments last month told customers that it hoped to be able “to offer these products again soon.”

raw-milk-whole-foods1.jpgBut on April 13, Whole Foods spokeswoman Libba Letton told Food Safety News that she’s “not aware of any plans to reintroduce it (raw milk) into our stores again for sale.”

She also said that as part of this decision and “in recognition of the passionate support” of raw milk by some of its customers, Whole Foods is providing customers who want to continue buying raw milk with contact information for raw milk suppliers.

State laws in California, Washington state, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut allow raw milk and raw milk products that meet state standards to be sold in retail stores.

Following on the heels of Whole Foods’ recent decision, PCC Natural Markets in Western Washington state discontinued selling all raw milk, effective April 6.

According to information from PCC, the cooperative stopped selling raw milk “in the interest of our customers’ health and safety,” although there were no known illnesses from raw cow or goat milk sold in its stores.

“We made this decision because raw milk is a higher risk food, especially for children, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems,” says the cooperative’s Website.

The Website also says that although Washington state still allows the retail sale of raw milk, PCC has concerns about “the reliability of being able to ensure, on an ongoing basis, the safety of raw milk.”

Like Whole Foods, PCC is working to help its raw milk customers find other sources for raw milk, and lists contact information for the two dairies–Jackie’s’ Jersey Milk and St. John’s Creamery, both in northwest Washington–that supplied its stores with raw milk. 

The two grocery businesses represent strong marketplace clout for shoppers who value natural and organic foods.

The tenth largest food and drug store in the United States, Whole Foods chalked up $8 billion in sales in 2008, according to the company’s Website.

With almost 45,000 members, PCC Natural Markets is the largest consumer-owned natural food retail co-operative in the United States.

According to information from Whole Foods, the company’s decision to discontinue selling raw milk and raw milk products–except for raw milk cheese that has been aged according to food safety standards–is in large part based on high additional costs for liability insurance.

Food safety attorney Bill Marler, who is currently representing a child and an adult from Connecticut who consumed raw milk contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 purchased at a Whole Foods store in Connecticut, said that the two patients have already racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical expenses.  In addition, the adult–a young mother–will likely require a kidney transplant, which will run into multiple millions of dollars in cost.

For Marler, the decision by Whole Foods and PCC Natural Foods to discontinue selling raw milk and raw milk products is a wise move.

“First-time buyers may in fact presume that raw milk is safer than it is when it’s sold at stores like Whole Foods and PCC,” he said.

Instead, he believes that raw milk should be sold only on farms certified by the state and inspected and tested regularly.

The battle over raw milk continues to pick up a strong head of steam.  On one side, scientists at state and federal agencies–armed with statistics–warn that raw milk can contain harmful pathogens, among them, Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7, Listeria, Campylobacter and Brucella, which can sicken or even kill people who drink contaminated raw milk. This information is available at

But raw milk supporters, many who have a strong distrust of government and corporate ag–swear by the health benefits of raw milk.

Out on the dairy farm, raw milk producers say that demand is so strong that consumers won’t veer away from it just because some stores have decided to stop selling it.

In an interview with Food Safety News, Mark McAfee, owner of Organic Pastures Dairy Company near Fresno, Calif., the largest retail-approved raw-organic-dairy-products producer in North America, said that although his dairy lost 55 outlets when Whole Foods pulled raw milk from its stores, it has picked up 25 others, among them some Mollie Stone’s and Paradise Foods stores.

With these new outlets, sales of his dairy’s raw milk are even higher than before Whole Foods stopped selling raw milk.

“People follow the product not the store,” he said. “It’s not all bad news.”

He also said that consumers are “overjoyed” about having more mom-and-pop stores where they can buy raw milk.

Price also plays a part in consumer reaction to the change. McAfee said that while Whole Foods sold his dairy’s raw milk for about $8 to $9.99 per half gallon, depending on location in the state; the stores that replaced Whole Foods are generally selling the dairy’s raw milk for about $1.50 to $2 less.

“This came as good news for our consumers,” he said.

Demand is strong and growing, he said, pointing out that even in the down economy, his dairy saw raw milk sales grow by 12 percent between January 2009 and January 2010.

Marcia St. John, co-owner of St. John’s Creamery in northwest Washington, told Food Safety News that her dairy has so much “grass-roots” support that it has picked up three new stores and is currently selling as much raw milk as before PCC stopped selling raw milk.

“This isn’t going to change people’s minds,” she said, referring to PCC’s decision to discontinue selling raw milk. “People will go where the raw milk is.”

For McAfee, the battle over this issue is between the “killer medical system that’s bankrupting the nation” and the people who want to be able to buy foods that sustain robust immune systems.

“We literally have a war on our hands,” he said.

On the consumer side of the fence, Steve Gilley, one of McAfee’s customers, said that while Whole Foods’ decision to discontinue selling raw milk doesn’t affect him and his wife personally since they buy their milk either from McAfee’s dairy farm or at a site in town where McAfee brings his milk, it will affect customers such as their son and daughter in Ventura County, who will have to seek out other local sources.

“But people will find it,” he said.

Describing himself as “a big milk drinker,” Gilley said that after he had triple bypass surgery in 2004, he thought he’d have to quit drinking milk because of concerns about milk’s fat content.

But after doing some research about raw milk, he gave it a try. Subsequent doctor check-ups revealed that his cholesterol was going down. And today, it’s in the low-normal range.

“For me, it’s worked out well,” he said. “I’m absolutely in love with raw milk. I would never go b
ack to homogenized, pasteurized milk.”

Two of his grandchildren, ages 3 1/2 and 1 1/2, also drink raw milk.  But one of Gilley’s sons refuses to try it based on warnings about its potentially harmful or fatal consequences.

McAfee said that most raw milk producers know they have to stay ahead of the regulatory curve by setting standards and making sure their milk is free of harmful pathogens.

He described the recent 2nd International Raw Milk Symposium held in Madison, WI as “a raging success.”

“We discussed developing a raw milk association that will set national standards,” he said.


Prior Food Safety News coverage of raw milk issues:

Whole Foods Pulls Raw Milk in 4 States, Mar. 14, 2010

Raw Milk Farmer Takes Stand Against FDA, Feb. 1, 2010

FDA Attempts to Corral Raw Milk Producer, Dec. 17, 2009

Raw Milk Regulation, Dec. 3, 2009