“Liz Reitzig will gladly tell you who she’s not. “I don’t consider myself a fringe person at all,” she says. The Bowie resident is just a coordinator for a group of people who like to drink raw milk, a group that happened to be infiltrated by the FDA during a year-and-a-half sting operation that ended last week with a farmer in handcuffs for selling raw milk across state lines.
The sting is the latest lump in the regional saga of raw milk—that is, milk straight from the cow that has not been pasteurized. Proponents of the product tend to call it “real milk”; state and federal health agencies call it a threat to public health.
Pasteurization is the process—dating to the 1920s—of heating milk just enough to kill pathogens like Salmonella and Listeria and then cooling it rapidly. The scourge-killing innovation eliminated the menace of raw milk, which sickened millions and killed infants via bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis. About half of all states—including Maryland and Virginia—have raw-milk bans on their books, and it’s illegal to sell it across state lines. Pennsylvania, which allows sales in state, is the regional exception.
So why would anyone want to drink unpasteurized milk? It seems like the equivalent of driving down the highway with no seatbelt, yet every raw milk drinker interviewed for this story claims interest is skyrocketing and gave half a dozen reasons for the choice to consume it: It tastes better. I want to know where my milk comes from. The government can’t tell me what to feed my kids. The CDC’s statistics on illness and deaths from raw milk are flawed. It’s healthier. It’s a conspiracy between the FDA and big pharmaceuticals.
For Reitzig, the decision to feed her family raw milk came after she tried to wean her daughter. “It seemed to me she had obvious digestive problems when we tried her on milk,” she says. The CDC maintains that raw milk has no health benefits over pasteurized milk, but that’s not what Reitzig saw. “We tried some other options, and as soon as we tried her on raw milk, her digestive problems cleared up,” she says. “It’s been a consistent part of our diet since.”
Today Reitzig leads the raw-milk advocacy group Maryland Independent Consumers and Farmers Association along with the online Grassfed on the Hill, the group linked to last week’s raw milk bust. Her interest in raw milk has expanded from trying to clear up her daughter’s digestive trouble to defending her right to feed her family what she wants.
“It’s kind of a way of government sidelining people,” she says of both raw-milk bans, not to mention compulsory vaccinations. “So many of these things are coerced or forced. It’s not so much an anti-government thing as an anti-government force thing.” .
Not all raw-milk proponents walk that diplomatic of a line.
Sally Fallon Morell of the Weston A. Price Foundation has no problem calling the government’s stance on raw milk a conspiracy.
“The FDA is in bed with the pharmaceutical industry and commodity agriculture,” she says. “There’s a huge economic incentive.” Morell draws much of her conviction from the testimony of people who switch to raw milk. “We have a lot of mothers making raw milk baby formula,” she says. “People get better when they drink raw milk. It gives a child everything they need.”
Elaine Lidholm, spokesperson for the Virginia Dept. of Agriculture and Consumer Services, finds the idea of baby being given raw milk horrifying. “I can’t imagine,” she says.
Lidholm, along with Laurie Bucher of the Maryland Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene, supports the views of the FDA and the CDC, which is that the consumption of raw milk is dangerous. CDC figures put the number of raw-milk incidents between 1998 and 2008 at 85 outbreaks, 1,676 reported illnesses, 191 hospitalizations and two deaths. Germs that can be found in raw milk include bacteria like Listeria and Salmonella, plus parasites and viruses. Infants, the elderly, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems are the most vulnerable to raw milk’s potential hazards….”