On land just west of Madison, Wisconsin, Kristina Amelong and her husband, Tim Cordon, graze 30 goats and have a pair of Jersey cows on the way. Their milk is fresh, creamy, and silken with fat, but it's sought after for what it isn't: pasteurized.
In a trend that delights devotees and disturbs public health officials, raw milk is increasingly popular. In Wisconsin, however--as in Illinois and almost all other states--the sale of it is illegal. So Amelong and Cordon, whose farm is called Cress Spring Whole Milk Dairy, have created a goat-and-cow-share program, an end run around pasteurization laws that was devised a decade ago.
Since milk, unlike, say, marijuana, isn't an illicit substance, it's legal for someone to drink unpasteurized milk from his own animals. The government only intervenes when someone besides the owner--a consumer--is implicated. Cow-share programs sell shares in livestock to the public, making them part owners and therefore legal consumers of the milk. Strictly speaking, no one is buying or selling milk: Amelong's goat, Funny-Funny, and her kids are communally owned, and many of their 40-plus owners happen to be people who live nowhere near their pasture. What can make such a situation tricky is that the interstate transport of raw milk has been banned by the Food and Drug Administration for years.
Because the legality of cow sharing is often unclear and more explicitly commercial programs are clearly illegal, it's difficult to get an accurate picture of how many shareholders there are. As Dennise Wright of Liberty Family Farm in Hart, Michigan--which promotes its goat- and cow-share programs at the Green City Market--says, "I know a lot of people probably do it under the table." But it's clear that raw milk is coming in from the fringe: there are now at least four farms that openly deliver to the Chicago area. (Amelong and Cordon's isn't one of them; they declined to discuss how their shareholders get their milk.)
Evanston resident Leslie Kosar gets raw milk twice a month from separate farms in Wisconsin and Michigan; she picks it up from local health food stores that have quietly agreed to serve as distributors. "I was against milk completely when my two children were born," she says. But after reading about raw milk on the Web site of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a Washington nonprofit that advocates against pasteurization, she changed her mind.
Her story would dismay Marlena Bordson, the chief of the food, drugs, and dairies division at the Illinois Department of Public Health. Raw milk can carry tuberculosis, listeria, salmonella, and other diseases and bacteria, she says, and is particularly unsafe for children or the elderly. "We always advise against it," she says. That said, there are no laws against cow sharing in Illinois--provided that the dairy respects existing laws against raw milk. No advertising's allowed, and customers must bring and fill their own containers at the farm. Deliveries are illegal: if the dairy delivered the milk, that would mean the dairy was bottling it, which would make it an illegal milk-bottling plant. Wisconsin and Michigan, where almost all raw milk in Chicago originates, have harsher laws: Wisconsin has intervened to shut down cow sharing in the past; Michigan bans everything but has tended in practice to look the other way.
A farmer who coordinates a multifarm program in southwestern Michigan that delivers to Chicago, Detroit, and Ann Arbor requested anonymity when contacted. "I've been warned in the past," he says. "If you go real public with it you get into trouble." His customers find him by word of mouth. "Almost every person who comes on board does it for the health benefit," he adds.
This is the singular irony of raw milk: it's restricted for the health risks it presents but sought out for its purported health benefits. Depending on who's talking, it can cure cancer or cause fatal illness. The two sides' claims are so divergent that after hearing them pasteurization seems less like a scientific process and more like a public health Rorschach test.
Almost everyone agrees that the high temperatures involved in pasteurization destroy the natural enzymes in milk. But no one agrees on what that means. Raw milk advocates say these enzymes are critical digestive aids that help break down lactose and flush toxins, and that pasteurization also destroys the good bacteria in milk and denatures its protein components and healthy fats. Public health officials respond that no scientific study has ever shown a nutritional difference between raw and pasteurized milk. Without pasteurization, they say, there's no way to ensure that bacteria like E. coli do not invade milk, which is so naturally nutritious that it attracts any hungry organism.
Sally Fallon, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, says that milk protects itself against disease: "If you put [bad] bacteria in raw milk, the next day it'll be gone." Scott Rankin, professor of food science at the University of Wisconsin, disputes this: "If I put bad bacteria into raw milk, is it capable of killing bad bacteria? Yes. Does it always happen? No. A preponderance of evidence shows that, in general, raw milk is routinely a source of pathogens."
What's inarguable, however, is that raw milk tastes better: there are no defenders of the gastronomic superiority of pasteurized milk (although dairy scientists will point out that raw milk can carry the taste of whatever a cow has eaten, good or bad). Louis Pasteur, who originally invented his process for beer and wine, held that it altered the taste insignificantly. No one would agree today, and people may eventually feel the same way about pasteurized milk. Even when it's gently heated to the lowest possible temperature, it's next to impossible to avoid altering the taste. The food writer Edward Behr has written that dairy professionals separate milk into categories of "'heated,' 'cooked,' and 'scorched'--all degrees of caramel flavor."
Setting aside the larger debate, a look at raw milk's recent history suggests that if it's treated conscientiously and consumed locally, it's safer than restrictions on it imply. Raw milk is legal for retail sale in California, Pennsylvania (whose Amish population drinks only raw milk), and Connecticut, and those states have reported few incidents. (Raw milk is also legal in Oregon and Florida, but only if labeled as pet food.) A cow-share program in northern Wisconsin was shut down in 2001 after being implicated in a local campylobacteriosis outbreak, but the farmer, Tim Wightman, denies the connection, saying that his tests showed the milk was safe and that state officials refused to show him their results. He has since restarted his program without problems.
Choosing to drink raw milk is a matter of conviction and desire. Even Rankin, the food scientist, says, "It's sort of like oysters. They're routinely full of bacteria. We put lots of things into our bodies that are bad for us." And ultimately the movement may be as much about small farms like Amelong's as it is about the health claims. After all, any agricultural model that directly connects farmers and consumers is so old that it looks new again. "We want people to be able to come to the farm," says Sally Fallon. "Milk is the absolute best way to do it."
Cress Spring Whole Milk Dairy
4035 Ryan Rd.
Blue Mounds, WI 53517
Liberty Family Farm
4520 E. Filmore
Hart, MI 49420