Depending upon whom you ask, raw milk is either nature’s elixir or a foodborne illness waiting to happen.
“This is an incredibly emotional issue,” says Andrea Stander, executive director of Rural Vermont, who says there’s not much middle ground between the two points of view. “People who feel that raw milk is dangerous feel that it is incredibly dangerous.”
Now, five years after Vermont passed its first regulations governing the sale of raw, aka unpasteurized, milk, the two camps are set to do battle again, as farmers push for easing some of the rules governing raw milk production and sales in Vermont.
The Agency of Agriculture is ramping up its on-farm inspections for raw milk producers. Dan Scruton, head of the agency’s dairy section, says the rules have “been on the books long enough we do have to start enforcing these statutes.”
Meanwhile, several raw milk producers are lobbing complaints at Scruton’s agency for fostering what Tunbridge dairy farmer Lindsay Harris called an “anti-small-dairy culture … which is rampant and aggressive.”
“It is supposed to be promoting farming, promoting working landscapes, helping farmers, supporting agriculture in Vermont,” Harris says of the Agency of Agriculture. “And when it comes to raw milk, they are doing everything they possibly can to put us out of business.”
“We follow the laws as set forth by the legislature, and the legislature has made it very clear that raw milk sales are allowed,” responds Diane Bothfeld, Vermont’s deputy secretary of agriculture. “The Agency of Agriculture takes no position for or against it.”
Rural Vermont is taking the farmers’ complaints to lawmakers; on Wednesday, the farm advocacy group presents its annual raw milk report to the House Committee on Agriculture and Forest Products. The testimony aims to bolster support for S.70 — a bill dealing with the delivery of raw milk at farmers markets, which made it out of the Senate ag committee last year. Rural Vermont would love the House to amend and pass the bill before May.
Rural Vermont is proposing, among other goals:
• allowing the sale of raw milk at farmers markets;
• tweaking the required animal health testing regimens for tuberculosis, brucellosis and rabies to be more “reasonable and affordable”;
• changing the language of the current warning signs required on farms and milk bottles, which warn of illness and the possibility of “miscarriage or fetal death, or death of a newborn.”
“Get rid of that damn death sign,” pleads farmer Lisa Kaiman, who is facing sanctions from the agency for violating some of the current raw milk rules.
The Agency of Agriculture hasn’t reacted yet to Rural Vermont’s most recent demands. Says Scruton: “I can’t weigh in on what I haven’t seen.”
Vermont’s first raw milk regulations passed in 2009 — in part, ostensibly, to protect consumers from the potentially harmful pathogens eradicated by pasteurization. Before that, raw milk sales in Vermont went largely unregulated. According to Stander, “It wasn’t illegal, but it wasn’t codified in any way in statute.”
Formal inspections from the Agency of Agriculture started in earnest a year ago. Prior to that, regulators had focused on providing “technical assistance” to farmers to come into compliance with the regulations, which Scruton cites as evidence of the agency’s willingness to work with raw milk producers.
Since gearing up for inspections, the agency has issued notices of violation to three farmers — in Chester, Charlotte and Londonderry — for failing to abide by the current raw milk regulations. All three were cited for not having performed or posted the results of required tuberculosis, brucellosis and rabies tests. Additionally, the Charlotte farm was cited for failing to post a warning sign on the farm about raw milk’s dangers; the Chester farmer was cited for improper bottle labeling.
State veterinarian Kristin Haas says that many more Vermont farmers have failed inspections for raw milk production, but the agency gives them time to come into compliance before issuing a formal notice.
The latest notice of violation went out on October 31 to farmer-proprietor Kaiman of Jersey Girls Dairy, in Chester. Last week the petite, forthright 46-year-old took her case before the Agency of Agriculture.
Kaiman showed up for her hearing in the stately brick building across the street from the Statehouse dressed in a Carhartt jacket and a bulky knit sweater, her graying hair piled in a messy bun atop her head. She and her lawyer, Dan Richardson, settled in at a conference table across from Haas, Scruton, an agency attorney and the inspector who visited Kaiman’s farm. Bothfeld — serving that day in the capacity of hearing officer — took a seat at the head of the table.
Kaiman and her lawyer weren’t disputing that she failed to affix a warning label to her bottles. Calling it a “death sticker,” she noted later that it’s more harshly worded than warning labels on cigarettes or alcohol.
At issue were the state’s animal health testing standards, which Kaiman and her lawyer argued are overly rigorous. Specifically, they object to procedures around TB and brucellosis, both bacterial diseases that can be transmitted to humans — but neither of which has been seen in Vermont for decades. After failing the initial inspection, Kaiman tested her cows for TB — and the Jersey Girls cows all tested negative. (She and Richardson argue that Vermont’s yearly TB test is onerous and point to New Hampshire, where rules require a test only every three years.) Kaiman says she vaccinates every calf born on her farm against brucellosis. That, plus annual brucellosis tests of her milk, should be enough to meet the state’s health standards, Kaiman says.
State ag regulators disagree and want each of Kaiman’s animals to get a blood test — a requirement for all raw milk producers in the state but not their conventional dairy counterparts. If Kaiman complies, she’ll have a hefty veterinary bill. If she doesn’t, she could lose her right to sell raw milk and face fines up to $500. Either way, she’s out milk revenue and attorney fees.
“I’m trying to do a good thing,” Kaiman told the officials when it was her time to testify last Tuesday. She described the lengths to which she goes to care for her “closed” herd of 25 milkers. The only animals to enter the herd are born on her farm, further limiting the possibility of disease.
But Diane Zamos, the agency’s lawyer, was quick to point out that Kaiman is breaking rules that are clearly outlined, both by the Agency of Agriculture and Vermont statute.
“There’s plenty of case law in Vermont that indicates the way to challenge a law is not to break it,” said Zamos as the hearing wrapped up.
The case is still ongoing, and agency officials said they couldn’t comment on Kaiman’s situation. Bothfeld gave both sides 14 days to submit legal briefs, after which she’ll rule on Kaiman’s case.
In an interview after the hearing, Kaiman continued her story. A New Jersey transplant who originally planned to be a large-animal veterinarian, she’s earned a certification from a Virginia-based nonprofit, Animal Welfare Approved, for “meat and dairy products that come from farm animals raised to the highest animal welfare and environmental standards.” Testing at Cornell showed her milk to be free of harmful bacteria. She said she doesn’t understand why state ag officials are giving her and other raw milk producers such a hard time.
“Our good, responsible farmers deserve more than this,” she said. Slapping on labels that warn of “fetal death” and sticking her cows with blood-testing needles doesn’t sit right with Kaiman. She works too hard, she says, to kowtow to “insulting” restrictions.
“No one’s going to force me to do anything to my cows that I don’t want to do to them,” says Kaiman. “That’s my deal with them.”
Kaiman’s been milking cows on her Chester farm — enlivened by murals of colorful Jersey cows by local painter Jamie Townsend — since 1999. When they’re not in the parlor, the girls are out on fresh pasture or ambling freely around the open barn.
Kaiman has a small processing plant, from which she sells raw and pasteurized milk to cheese makers, restaurants and individual consumers. Customers willing to trek to the farm pay $10 per gallon for the raw stuff — $3 more than the statewide average. She is not allowed to sell more than 12.5 gallons a day, according to state statute, but Kaiman says she could do a lot more business. Doing so, she argues, would help her afford to comply with all the raw-milk regulations; she says it’s hard to make enough money otherwise.
Customers rave about Kaiman’s milk and her farm; in letters on her behalf, customers implored agency officials to restore Kaiman’s ability to sell raw milk.
“As an educated consumer of local, organic food, I trust my ability to discern what foods and beverages belong on my table,” wrote Annie Hawkins, a Grafton resident and six-year customer.
The Vermont Department of Health recommends against consuming raw milk — as do both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last month the American Academy of Pediatrics advocated for an all-out ban on raw milk sales, citing health risks that they say are especially grave for pregnant women, fetuses, infants and young children.
Milk sold in Vermont grocery stores has been heated to a specific temperature. That pasteurization process is intended to kill most of the possible pathogens in milk; it both protects against disease and slows spoilage caused by microbial growth.
Raw milk, on the other hand, is completely unprocessed. Consumers rely on farmers to practice good sanitation in order to keep pathogens out of milk in the first place.
Erica Berl, an infectious disease epidemiologist with the Vermont Health Department, says that raw milk was implicated in three 2010 Vermont outbreaks of campylobacteriosis — a gastrointestinal disease caused by bacteria, similar in nature to E. coli, salmonella or listeriosis infections. One hit a school field trip, affecting around 14 children. There were four confirmed, and another six probable, cases associated with a bed and breakfast. Finally, six inmates at a work camp got sick after drinking raw milk. Berl says no one was sick enough to be hospitalized, though a few patients did seek treatment.
Berl says that most cases of campylobacteriosis aren’t associated with outbreaks; they’re what the department calls “sporadic” cases — of which the state sees, on average, 176 per year. Berl says that between 8 and 15 percent of campylobacteriosis patients report exposure to raw milk or unpasteurized dairy products. There’s no causal link, she says, but it’s still a worrying figure for health officials.
Berl is unwavering: “Don’t buy raw milk and don’t drink it.” There’s no meaningful difference between nutritional values of raw and pasteurized milk, she said, and the risk just isn’t worth it.
“That’s total bullshit,” says Harris, the raw milk farmer in Tunbridge.
She and her husband Evan Reiss started Family Cow Farmstand in Hinesburg; as operators of the state’s largest raw milk dairy, they provided milk for hundreds of Burlington-area families before selling the business last fall. They’d been leasing the farm — from Agency of Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross, no less — and wanted to buy their own.
The family ended up in Tunbridge, but because “we wanted to live out in the middle of nowhere,” Harris says, they had to give up on raw milk sales. They’re still milking cows, but they intend to produce an artisan, cultured — and pasteurized — butter. Harris says building a business solely around raw milk only works near a major population center with lots of customers, like Burlington, and so they needed to focus on a product they could sell through retail outlets.
“That was the biggest compromise,” says Harris. Resorting to pasteurization, for her, meant “letting go of selling … the best possible food we could.” Pasteurizing milk, Harris says, leads to nutrient breakdown and the loss of enzymes and probiotics, including the loss of approximately 10 percent of thiamine and vitamin B12 and about 20 percent of vitamin C, according to one study. She points to a European report that found a direct link between exposure to raw milk and decreased likelihood of allergies.
As for food safety? Harris has dug deep into CDC statistics on foodborne illnesses and raw milk consumption rates.
“It’s a perishable food, and sure it can make you sick, but it’s not outside the norms of foodborne illness in any way,” says Harris.
Between 1998 and 2011, the CDC got reports of 148 outbreaks it attributes to the consumption of raw milk or unpasteurized dairy products. These resulted in 2,384 illnesses, 284 hospitalizations and two deaths.
But what about massive outbreaks of contaminated spinach, cantaloupe or ground beef? Between 1998 and 2008, according to the CDC, produce was responsible for 46 percent of documented foodborne illnesses. Dairy products, both raw and pasteurized, came in at 20 percent.
“It just doesn’t seem fair to put raw milk in this whole other category when the data show that it doesn’t belong there,” says Harris.
Harris’s Family Cow Farmstand was the first “tier two” raw milk seller in the state, a designation that permits it to sell up to 40 gallons a day and deliver milk directly to customers while meeting stricter regulations, including twice-monthly quality testing.
The farm met all the raw milk standards, but Harris said she was still deeply frustrated by the system. The rules required them to distribute their product with “warning labels that say, ‘This is going to kill your kid.’” And they were limited in how much they could sell each day.
“It’s double jeopardy,” says Harris. “We can show that we have the quality really going, but you still restrict us.”
Harris understands the origin of the stigma. In the late 19th century, dairy farms were moving into industrial centers to provide milk for increasing numbers of city dwellers. But they were filthy places, and the milk was very dangerous to drink.
Pasteurization changed all that — but Harris believes that many regulators don’t understand how far farming has come since.
“They are not taking into account that now we know how to clean up farms,” she says. Farmers today know how to sanitize equipment, keep cows healthy and vaccinate against diseases. “We can farm and we can produce milk in a way that makes it extremely safe without having to pasteurize it.”
Kaiman, the Chester farmer, has considered moving to nearby New Hampshire, where state regulations allow farmers to peddle raw milk at markets — with labels that simply read, “Raw milk is not pasteurized. Pasteurization destroys organisms that may be harmful to human health.”
But she’d much rather stay where she is — and see Vermont regulations change. Rural Vermont’s Stander thinks that’s a real possibility.
Ultimately, Stander says, it’s a consumer issue. “This is an issue of freedom for informed adults to make their own choices about what they want to eat.”