Always a controversial topic, raw milk has landed smack dab in the middle of a tug-of-war policy disagreement between two major farm groups. Raw milk is milk that hasn’t been pasteurized to kill harmful, and at times deadly, pathogens such as E. coli, Listeria, Salmonella and Campylobacter. Pulling on one end of the rope in favor of raw milk and raw milk products — as long as strict standards are followed in producing it — is the National Farmers Union, often described as a “populist” organization with a focus on “family-size” farms. Pulling on the other end of the rope in flat-out opposition to the sale of raw milk and raw milk products is the American Farm Bureau Federation, known for its lobbying powers on the state and federal level. Both claim the distinction of representing the American farmer. These contrasting views came to light this year in policies adopted by the two organizations during their annual meetings. Smooth sailing at the NFU convention During the NFU’s 111th annual convention, held earlier this month in Massachusetts, the delegates endorsed a strong pro-raw milk stance. They also supported the interstate shipment of raw milk, which is one of the items listed under the topic of “Food Safety.” With an eye on the faltering dairy industry — due in large part to high feed costs and slumping demand — the NFU policy came out in support of raw milk because “it provides a viable market niche for dairies.” However, because of the risk of cross-contamination with other milk that might contain pathogens, the NFU policy recommends that raw milk be bottled as the product of a single dairy and, wherever possible, at the physical location of that dairy. The organization also supports policies, practices and standards of responsible raw milk production for dairy farmers who choose to produce raw milk or raw milk products for human consumption. And it calls for equal access to these products for all consumers who choose to consume raw milk. Mark McAfee, co-owner of Fresno-based Organic Pastures, the largest raw milk producer in the United States, told Food Safety News that there was no reference to raw milk in NFU’s 2012 policy manual. This year, when he was selected to be a delegate from California, he went before the policy committee. The committee agreed to bring the issue before the whole body, where it won strong support. In proposing the new policies, McAfee was supported by delegates from California, Pennsylvania and the Northeastern States. “They recognized that raw milk is good for people,” he said. “It’s good for cows and it’s good for farmers.” But as upbeat as McAfee is about the organization’s new policies on raw milk, he’s disappointed in the states that are suppressing sales of raw milk for human consumption. “It leaves dairymen in those states up to their own devices to get raw milk to consumers,” he said, pointing out that a lack of strict state standards can pose food safety risks. According to the FDA, 20 states explicitly prohibit sales of raw milk and 30 states allow it. Among the states that allow it, California, Arizona, Maine, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Utah and Washington have strict standards for the milk’s cleanliness. These standards are equivalent to the national and some international standards for pasteurized milk. Although the FDA has no power over state laws pertaining to raw milk, it does have the authority to ban interstate sales of raw milk, an action it took in 1987 with an eye on preventing disease outbreaks linked to raw milk. ‘Vigorous’ discussion at the Farm Bureau meeting In January, during the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, delegates approved a new policy stating that only pasteurized milk and milk products should be sold for human consumption. According to information from the organization, delegates approved the measure in light of the potential risks to public health posed by the consumption of raw milk. AFBF president Bob Stallman told Jerry Hagstrom, publisher of Agweek, that delegates had a “vigorous discussion” about this topic. Dale Moore, director of public policy for the organization, told Food Safety News that raw milk was the “sleeper issue” during the annual meeting. What triggered concern about this, he said, was a proposed amendment allowing interstate sales of raw milk for human consumption. “When this came up, there was a lot of surprise,” he said. “The dairy members jumped and said, ‘No, we’re opposed to this.’” That led the organization to re-emphasize its opposition to raw milk for human consumption. “We decided we’re going to stay opposed, not neutral, on this,” Moore said, pointing out that this decision was based on the fact that there have been no changes in FDA’s stance on raw milk. According to FDA’s website on raw milk, a recent study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that the majority of dairy-related disease outbreaks have been linked to raw milk. Even so, Moore emphasized that the organization’s stance against interstate sales of raw milk applies only to the FDA’s ban. “We aren’t going to try to change state laws,” Moore said. “We want people at the state level to understand that this is not a policy on what’s happening in their states.” Hard times in the dairy world Organic Pastures’ McAfee told Food Safety News that sales of pasteurized milk are in steep decline, which has many dairy farmers across the nation scrambling for ways to stay in business. For some, raw milk offers a better business model. “If sales of pasteurized milk were really strong, raw milk wouldn’t be as big an issue as it is,” McAfee said. “But a lot of dairy farmers are facing tough times. Some are throwing down the surrender flag and saying they’ll plant almonds or walnuts instead.” This theory aligns with comments that Michael Marsh, CEO of the Western United Dairymen, shared with a reporter last fall for an article in the San Francisco Chronicle. “Many dairy farmers are simply giving up and getting out,” he said. “The barns are coming down, the corrals pulled apart, and the ground planted with almonds, walnuts and pistachios.” The same article also said that farmers are not only losing their farms but also their homes, which in many cases were their grandparents’ and parents’ homes. In an e-mail to Food Safety News, Marsh said that according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, California lost 105 dairy farms between 2011 and 2012. He also said that since last October, milk prices have fallen and feed costs still exceed the revenue producers receive. Flip the coin, and farmers selling raw milk are generally having a better time of it. In McAfee’s case, for example, he’s seen sales increase by 25 percent at Organic Pastures. “We’re a $10 million company now,” he said. “And that would be higher except our trucks just aren’t large enough to carry all the milk and milk products we produce. The raw milk industry is explosive and exciting.” Things are going so well for him, in fact, that he’ll be building a brand new $3.5 million creamery next year. He describes the creamery as “very tourable with an educational area and quality assurance labs.” He also envisions smaller raw milk dairies setting up “tourable” facilities and selling their milk and milk products to visitors very much like artisan-based wineries do now. “They’ll be able to get good prices,” he said. “People will want to go to there.” Hannah Smith-Brubaker, executive director of the Pennsylvania Farmers Union and co-owner of Village Acres Farm, agrees with McAffee that customer demand is the driving force behind dairy farmers’ interest in raw milk. Her family, which includes two children ages 10 and 14, drinks raw milk and always has. “It’s a superior nutritional product. I can’t imagine why a government agency should stand in the way of this,” she said, referring to the FDA’s ban on interstate sales of raw milk for human consumption. She also said that raw milk provides a good discourse about food safety and puts the issue of direct sales from the farm to consumers on the table. “It allows a farmer to have a good livelihood,” she said. “He’s selling the same unprocessed product to customers that he’s serving to his family.” When she can’t get raw milk directly from the farmer, Smith-Brubaker said she’ll go to the store to buy it, typically paying $5 to $7 for a gallon, which she said goes almost entirely to the farmer. She contrasts that with far lower prices for pasteurized milk, with much of that going to the processor. McAfee, meanwhile, believes that the day that safe and responsibly produced raw milk will be legal across the nation is coming. “This isn’t a black or white issue,” he said. “It’s an evolutionary process. I envision it as a 5 to 7-year roll-out.” How safe is raw milk? Last December, McAfee sued the FDA for allegedly turning its back on the dairy’s 2008 request for the agency to withdraw its current ban on sales of raw milk across state lines. Instead, he wants raw milk that is produced legally in one state, such as California, to be able to be shipped to another state that also allows sales of raw milk, such as neighboring Arizona. Pointing to food safety concerns, McAfee said that he’s not asking for raw milk to be allowed across every state line in all cases because “sloppily produced raw milk can be dangerous.” But in a Feb. 26, 2013 response to McAfee, Michael Landa, director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, made it clear that the agency isn’t going to budge on its ban on interstate commerce of raw milk. Here are some of the points made in the agency’s response:
- Even if milk is produced under strict standards that require low coliform and somatic cell counts — both of which indicate that the milk meets certain sanitation standards — those low counts don’t indicate the presence or absence of harmful, potentially deadly pathogens.
- As of yet, there is no reliable method available to guarantee that raw milk from a state-regulated dairy or raw milk manufacturer is or will be free of pathogens.
- There have been nine recalls (quarantines) involving raw milk or raw milk products in California since 2006, seven of which have involved Organic Pastures.
“FDA has concluded that your petition fails to establish that current testing, state inspection and state regulation programs can adequately mitigate the dangers posed by raw milk,” wrote Landa in his conclusion. McAfee told Food Safety News that he has no intention of throwing in the towel on this issue and that he’s drafting a new petition with scientific information that will be put before the judge. “It will refute all the false statements in FDA’s response,” he said. “We’re going to keep the heat on their feet on this.” In his e-mail to Food Safety News, Western United Dairymen CEO Marsh said that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last spring issued guidance finding that the consumption of raw milk was the country’s top food safety concern. “Whenever we experience one of the iterative raw milk recalls and quarantines of raw milk sales in California, sales of all milk and dairy products suffers, not just sales to consumers of raw milk,” he said. “Unfortunately, consumers read or hear of yet another raw milk recall and what they retain is that ‘the milk is bad’ and consumption declines.” What about this business model? While many raw milk supporters say that producing and selling raw milk is a way for dairy farmers to stay in business, Jon Bansen, an Oregon organic dairy farmer and a member of the Organic Valley cooperative, would offer another option. “Organic dairying is a good business model even though there’s been some downward pressure on prices,” he said, referring to grocery stores with private-label organic milk. Bansen also pointed out that because most organic milk is pasteurized, there’s less for a dairy farmer to worry about when it comes to being sued. That’s not the case, he said, for raw milk producers who have to worry that their milk might get someone sick if foodborne pathogens get into the milk. On the business side of the equation, he said he gets about $3 a gallon for the milk from his Jersey cows, which is considerably more than the price conventional dairy farmers receive for their milk. But it’s not a slam dunk. “My costs could be more than $3 per gallon if I don’t do a good job of it,” he said. “And if I were buying organic alfalfa and organic grain, I’d go broke.” Instead, he pastures his cows and raises the grains and hay he feeds his cows, which puts his costs “well under $3 a gallon.” Now that his son has returned to the dairy, Bansen has increased his milking herd to 180 cows. He said it’s easier to manage a small dairy such as his than a larger operation, where it’s a challenge to keep a close eye on things. “The organic model really is the best of all worlds,” he said. “But you have to really think about all of the biological processes involved with the cows and the health of your soil. But when you do, organic dairying is really an enjoyable system. You get a lot of satisfaction out of it.” Not that it’s as easy as simply deciding to switch over to organic dairying. It generally takes 3 years to transition to organic, and a dairy has to be close enough to a processor that will take its organic milk. Consumer demand is the driver. Some consumers are willing to pay the higher prices for organic milk products based on the belief that they’re healthier. Others choose organic because they believe organic dairying is good for the environment and helps small family-scale dairy farms stay in business. According to Organics Trade Association, 6 percent of all dairy products sold to U.S. consumers are organic. In 2011, nearly 2.1 billion pounds of organic milk products were sold — a 14.5 percent increase from the previous year and the second year in a row that sales increased by double digits, according to information from the USDA.