Seattle Times on raw milk mooovement

Here’s an excerpt from Maureen O’Hagan’s lengthy story for the Seattle Times titled “Is raw unpasteurized milk safe?”:

Click image above to go to Seattle Times page to watch video

“There’s long been a libertarian streak running through the raw-milk crowd. A Christian one, too. Now it’s attracting another demographic entirely: advocates of local food. Dairymen are seizing that opportunity. Five years ago, there were six licensed raw-milk dairies in Washington; today there are 28.

“Unpasteurized milk is a curious thing. It costs up to $13 a gallon. It says right on the carton: “WARNING: This product … may contain harmful bacteria.”

Yet people are passionate about it. Almost evangelistic.

So in early December, when the state announced that raw milk from Dungeness Valley Creamery in Sequim was linked with three E. coli cases, the reaction was, well … emotional.

“Lies,” more than one raw-milk drinker posted on the Dungeness dairy’s Web site, in response to the state’s announcement.

“Trickery,” another supporter wrote.

“Despicable,” wrote a third.

Never mind that health authorities like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Mayo Clinic say you shouldn’t drink the stuff. To some, the bad news is evidence of a conspiracy. It involves Big Ag trying to stamp out the little guy, Big Government pushing its way into our kitchens, sleazy lawyers trying to make a buck, and scientists who malign a key to good health.

Now, Whole Foods Markets has become a target. The company recently halted raw-milk sales nationwide, saying it needed a “rigorous companywide standard.” It was another sign, one pro-raw-milk blogger wrote, of the “ever more sinister campaign against food rights.” There are calls for a boycott of the company.

Raw milk’s supporters are at once modern-day rebels and throwbacks to an older, simpler time. They are health-food aficionados who dismiss the health authorities.

There’s long been a libertarian streak running through the raw-milk crowd. A Christian one, too. Now it’s attracting another demographic entirely: advocates of local food.

“It is an emblem of noncorporate food,” best-selling author Michael Pollan, godfather of the local-food movement, wrote in an e-mail to The Seattle Times.

Dairymen are seizing that opportunity. Five years ago, there were six licensed raw-milk dairies in Washington; today there are 28.

And though Pollan thinks people should be able to eat what they want, he notes there is a disconnect.

“I think people turn a blind eye to some of the food safety concerns,” he wrote.

Indeed, along with the growth in raw milk’s popularity has come a rise in dairy-related food-borne-illness outbreaks, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer research, advocacy and education organization.

Which brings us back to the Dungeness creamery and its owner, Jeff Brown. During a long morning spent milking, soothing and coaxing cows, Brown blasted the government overseers whose actions temporarily disrupted his business. He spoke about freedom. And he said the truth is simple:

“Everything God designed is good for you.”

“Value-added” niche

People don’t get into the dairy business because of the hours, or the glamour.

“My claim to fame is: I’m the world’s slowest milker,” Brown announced proudly. A sturdy man of 58, he loves to talk.

He remembers when he was 14, “praying the dairy industry would stay good so I could milk cows.”

He started his own farm in 1971 and began contracting with Darigold, which pasteurized and distributed his milk. But Brown, like dairymen all over the country, worried about declining wholesale prices.

“In order to make it, you have to milk a lot of cows and your cow numbers have to constantly be getting bigger,” Brown explained. Otherwise, “your profit margin will continue to shrink.”

In order to stick with about 60 cows, Brown saw just one option: sell a “value-added” product.

For years, people had asked Brown if he’d sell his milk straight from the cow, unpasteurized. The heating process kills most disease-producing organisms, but it also changes the taste.

With the surge of interest in local food, Brown and his family saw opportunity. They got their raw-milk license in 2006.

“Five years earlier, I don’t think the market was there,” he said.

Today, the Dungeness creamery is one of the larger raw-milk producers, bottling more than 200 gallons a day.

It used to be, you’d have to go directly to the farm or a cooperative “drop site” to buy raw milk. Now it’s increasingly in grocery stores — and it flies out the door.

Warning labels don’t hurt sales, Brown said. They’re “a badge of honor.”

True believers

People who like raw milk really like raw milk.

They say it fights everything from allergies to asthma, digestive problems to learning disabilities. It eases arthritis pain and improves cholesterol, boosts immunity and clears cataracts.

When you pasteurize milk, they say, it kills key nutrients and leads to things like heart disease.

The FDA says none of this is scientifically proven. After finding “raw milk, no matter how carefully produced, may be unsafe,” the agency banned its interstate sale in 1987.

Washington is one of seven states that allows its retail sale. Most states permit limited sales, such as on the farm. It’s illegal in 10 states.

In states with limited availability, people drive hundreds of miles to get their raw-milk fix. They break laws and stage protests. They have long maintained they’re being picked on.

“Never in the annals of health and nutrition has there been a food so maligned, lied about and conspired against as raw milk,” a national group pushing universal access posted on its Web sites.

When Dungeness customers learned The Seattle Times was working on this story, they flooded the paper with eager calls and e-mails.

Mary Solberg, of Sequim, was one of them. She was drawn to raw milk’s flavor, but she heard there could be risks, so she did some reading and visited Dungeness. After that, she was satisfied.

“They’re here in the community,” she said. “I just felt safe.”

Illnesses on the rise

Public-health authorities say raw milk is risky, local or not. They cite two main reasons. The first is, it’s consumed uncooked. The second has to do with the guts of cows.

All cows — actually, all warm-blooded animals — have E. coli in their guts. Some strains of it are harmless. Others are not. They’re called Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, and “cows are the main source where these organisms live,” said J. Kathryn MacDonald, a state epidemiologist.

The Shiga toxin doesn’t hurt the cows, but it can make humans very, very sick — as in kidney failure, coma, stroke, prolonged hospitalization. Even death.

We get E. coli illness by swallowing the bug.

Actually, by swallowing tiny bits of manure containing the bacteria. “This happens more often than we would like to think,” the CDC said on its Web site.

Experts say hamburger is a big culprit. The good news is, heat kills E. coli and other pathogens. That’s why food-safety experts say to cook hamburger thoroughly. It’s called a “kill step.”

For milk, pasteurization is the kill step. Without it, there’s nothing between you and any bugs that might be swimming around. The chance there’s a deadly pathogen in a particular glass of milk may be small, but it’s a risk no one has to take.

James E. McWilliams, author of a book questioning the locavore movement, puts it bluntly:

“To me, it’s Russian roulette,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The whole of human history is about humans being taken down by diseases transferred from animals to people. Pasteurization was perhaps the most significant advance ever made in reducing the transmission.”…”

Read the whole thing here on the Seattle Times website.

Thanks to Bill Marler’s Food Poisoning Journal, for the link to this story.

The story has been picked up by Associated Press. Here it is on


Filed under News

4 responses to “Seattle Times on raw milk mooovement

  1. thebovine

    This story is the first time I’ve seen Michael Pollan quoted as saying anything about raw milk.

    I know I’m not the only who has felt that the subject has been conspicuously absent from the scope of discussion in his books on food.


  2. Kymus

    I am disappointed that the article from the Seattle Times focused almost 100% on the scare of bacteria. There was no explanation of what happens to the body when we drink conventional milk and the defects of the processing milk undergoes. I don’t drink raw milk because of the taste, I drink it because I have a background in nutrition and I know what each of these steps do.

  3. thebovine

    As David Gumpert points in a recent post on the Complete Patient, the Seattle Times article clearly has an agenda to show that it’s a hopeless challenge to keep raw milk free of contamination and that raw milk fans are misguided zealots. Mabye that’s why Bill Marler was so keen to promote it. And that may also be why it’s been picked up by Associated Press for distribution to other media outlets. Which all sounds pretty disparaging and discouraging.

    But we can also look at this story from the “I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right*” school of PR, according to which we should all be happy that raw milk is getting ink, pixels and mindshare. Meanwhile, we’re counting on readers’ common sense and letters-to-the-editor blowback, to help sift wheat from chaff in the public mind.

    *quote variously attributed to P.T. Barnum and others. See:

  4. anon

    Comment on this article from Dr. Doug Powell’s blog

    Faith-based food safety – god is good version

    In a new take on faith-based food safety, Jeff Brown, owner of the Dungeness creamery in Washington state which produces raw milk and was linked to three cases of E. coli illness in Dec. 2009, was quoted as telling the Seattle Times this morning,

    “Everything God designed is good for you.”

    I don’t know who designed small pox, but I don’t want it.

    Not sure who designed aflatoxins in food, but don’t want that either.

    And I don’t want pathogens in milk, especially when there is an easy technological fix – pasteurization.

    The story cites the state Department of Health as saying between 2005 and 2009, 395 Washingtonians with lab-confirmed cases of foodborne pathogens reported consuming raw-milk products shortly before getting sick.

    Brown maintains the government has unfairly damaged his farm’s reputation.

    “You know how you can tell they’re lying? Their lips are moving. … God designed raw milk; man messed with it. You draw your own conclusions.”

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