Competing Health Claims Over Raw Milk

Oct 4, 2016

In Virginia, as in most other states, the retail selling of unpasteurized milk is illegal. However, it is legal in the state for cow owners to drink raw milk from cows they own. Whether or not drinking raw milk is a good idea or should be a matter of personal choice depends on whom you ask, as WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz reports.

As the sun rises over a small garage along a country road near Keezletown, Windy Hill farm owner Corinne Warns organizes empty half gallon jars.

[Jar sounds]

The people who drink the milk from her couple dozen currently milking cows are not her customers; they are part owners of the herd. They’ve bought shares of the cows -- one share equals two gallons of milk each week -- and they pay ongoing boarding fees.

WARNS: When they are a herd owner they get the benefits of that and one of the benefits is milk.

Until May, Warns mainly shipped milk through a conventional distributor, and sold herd shares on the side. Her shipper, Dairy Farmers of America, knew about that for years, she says, but in May dropped her contract.

WARNS: I didn't feel like we were hurting anybody, I felt like we were giving people a choice. It was breach of contract, and it just… push came to shove and we had to stop what we were doing.

Without that contract, they had no outlet for much of their milk. Unlike faucets, you can’t just turn off cows.

WARNS: Just to open that tank and watch hundreds of gallons of milk go down the drain, it was really stressful. It was tough. It was something my husband and I didn't talk about, just because it's all your work. You know, you work so hard. He does this before school: He gets up at 4:30, milks, goes and teaches school, comes back. And just to watch it go down the drain, it just breaks your heart.

They began actively promoting herd shares. They’ve sold more than 60, but they need more in order to be sustainable.

WARNS: We're still dumping milk down the drain.

Naysaying public health heavyweights decry drinking raw milk. The websites of the Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Virginia Department of Health call raw milk “one of the riskiest” foods that “can harbor dangerous microorganisms that can pose serious health risks to you and your family.”

[Sound from the FDA’s video “The Dangers of Unpasteurized Milk”]: Unpasteurized, or raw milk, from cows, sheep, goats, or other animals can carry bacteria that can make you sick, like salmonella, E. coli, campylobacter, and listeria.

They say “there is no scientific evidence” for many of the health benefits claimed by proponents.

Eric Paulson of the Virginia State Dairymen’s Association, an organization that advocates for dairy farmers at the state and local level, adds that drinking raw milk doesn’t come down, necessarily, to a matter of personal choice.

PAULSON: In over two-thirds of the cases, there's a child involved. And that's really what worries us is that those children don't always make the choice.

Compare the numbers, though, to those of smoking, which kills 480,000 people in the United States each year, including nearly 42,000 from secondhand smoke exposure, and is still legal in Virginia. But in our state it’s not legal to buy and sell raw milk for human consumption even though nationally in the 14 years from 1993-2006 there were just two deaths linked to unpasteurized milk.

Paulson and government agencies insist that pasteurization makes milk safer to drink without significantly reducing its health benefits, but raw milk advocates heartily disagree.

HURRELBRINCK: I would just as soon buy soda.

Charlottesville’s Nancy Hurrelbrinck is a shareholder of the Windy Hill herd. A lot of the milk she buys for her four-person household ends up as yogurt or kefir.

HURRELBRINCK: We easily go through five gallons a week and sometimes we run out. I have twins who are 9, and they've been drinking raw milk since they were one, and they're in great health.

She references the health claims of raw milk proponents like the Weston A. Price Foundation, which says that raw milk has its own built-in protective components for dealing with pathogens.

Furthermore, the Foundation says, pasteurized milk is linked to -- among other ailments -- lactose intolerance, allergies, auto-immune disease, and attention deficit disorder.

Hurrelbrinck adds that buying locally, from farmers she knows, is a vote for her kind of world, where animals aren’t crowded and don’t need antibiotics, where milk keeps its good bacteria, and farming doesn’t cause massive pollution.

HURRELBRINCK: It's not just about what you pay at the checkout.

[Sounds of a cow eating, milking parlor, milk being poured into jars]

Back on the farm, the mostly Jersey cows wander into the noisy milking parlor when they’re ready for some grain and their once-a-day milking. In the next room, Corinne Warns fills the sterilized jars from the stainless steel milk tank. Raw, she says, is how milk is supposed to be.

WARNS: One time we came back really late from a trip. We stopped at 7-11 on the way home and bought a gallon of milk. Gave the kids cereal the next day, and they were like, what is wrong with this? I’m like, No, that's not what's wrong with it, that's what other people drink when they buy from the grocery store. We're spoiled.