Officials think raw milk is safe if regulated
PHILADELPHIA -- Convenience is the key to where most Americans shop for food, especially for something as basic as milk.
But that's not the case for Cherry Hill, N.J., resident Suzanne Musetto, who makes regular trips to Pennsylvania for something she can't buy in New Jersey: raw milk.
Musetto swears by the health benefits she perceives in milk that has not been pasteurized, or heat-treated, to kill bacteria: a stronger immune system and better digestion.
"Milk that's pasteurized is really a dead product," Musetto said, referring to the destruction of enzymes and beneficial bacteria. Musetto, her husband and 17-year-old son go through three gallons of raw milk a week, some of it in the form of yogurt she makes.
Thanks to consumers like her, raw-milk sales are growing in Pennsylvania, one of the few states that issue raw-milk permits and allow retail sales, according to interviews with farmers and retailers. Raw-milk sales are not formally tracked. The number of farms with permits to sell raw milk or make cheese from raw milk has jumped from an estimated 20 in 2003 to 57 now.
Out of the mainstream
This surge is part of a movement of consumers toward foods that are not easily available through the industrialized food system, such as beef from cattle raised on grass instead of grain and eggs from chickens that get to wander outside and eat bugs.
By allowing raw-milk sales, Pennsylvania is bucking the federal Food and Drug Administration, which calls raw milk "inherently dangerous."
Pennsylvania officials, however, believe raw milk is safe if regulated. They also see its financial benefit to farmers, who sell raw milk to consumers for 4.50 or more a gallon at a time when they are getting little more than 1 from dairy processors.
Like New Jersey, the neighboring states of Delaware, Maryland and Ohio prohibit raw-milk sales. New York offers a license, but only 12 are active.
Pennsylvania is the fourth-largest dairy state, behind California, Wisconsin and New York, but it is losing market share to Western states. Raw and, separately, organic milk represent a strong niche for the state's relatively small dairies, some experts said.
As welcome as Pennsylvania's 1930s permit system is to raw-milk fans, it leaves many farmers and consumers dissatisfied because it bans the sale of products made from raw milk.
Getting around it
To get around the restriction, some farmers with permits sign contracts with customers under which they first sell the milk and then receive separate payment -- not for the butter, for example, but for their labor.
"Issuing permits and tolerating the production of otherwise banned products made under contract" is a "unique and forward-thinking kind of solution to this tough problem, because the people do at some level deserve to get what they want," said Brian Snyder, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture.
Separately, a group of Amish and Mennonite farmers formed an organization that they say exempts them and consumers who join from government oversight.
"We think we've got the right to sell food," said Leroy Miller, an Amish farmer who lives near Bird-in-Hand, Pa., and who said he sold 250 gallons a week, plus as much butter as he can make.
"The people decide when they come to the farm whether they like my farm or not. If it's not clean enough, they won't come back," Miller said.
That group, CARE, for Communities Alliance for Responsible Eco-Farming, has about 30 producer members. Most do not have permits but follow CARE's standards for feeding and testing.
Still need a permit
The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture asserts that CARE "does not exempt" members from "needing to have a permit," said Secretary of Agriculture Dennis C. Wolff, who grew up drinking raw milk and whose Columbia County farm had a raw-milk permit in the 1960s.
To get the permit, dairies must present three straight weekly raw-milk tests that meet stringent criteria.
New York University nutrition expert Marion Nestle said that, while she believes raw milk tastes better, "I have no way of knowing whether the producer followed strict food-safety procedures."
Some consumers get around that uncertainty by becoming a regular customer of one farmer.
Alicia Gromicko of Pottstown, Pa., for example, is part of a buyers club that receives a delivery of milk, cheese and butter made from raw milk and other products every other week from an Amish farmer in Paradise, Pa.
Musetto spreads her business around, buying milk on alternate weeks from Birchwood Farm Dairy in Newtown and Swiss Villa Dairy in Dauphin County.
Musetto orders butter from various farms, paying 12 a pound -- more than twice the price of Horizon organic butter at Acme -- and drives about 150 miles to pick it up at a certified-organic farm.