When Tina Shallis runs out of milk, it’s time for a road trip.
The Edison resident drives 90 miles round trip to Birchwood Farms in Pennsylvania to buy six gallons of unpasteurized milk — enough to last 10 days for drinking and making ice cream or kefir.
And, here’s the kicker: She pays $8 a gallon, about twice the amount of a gallon of pasteurized milk at the supermarket.
“It is well worth it,” said Shallis, a mother of two.
Like Shallis, New Jersey’s raw milk lovers head to Pennsylvania and New York weekly or biweekly because, they say, pasteurization kills the beneficial as well as potentially dangerous bacteria in milk, such as e. coli and salmonella. And they cross borders because New Jersey is one of 11 states where the sale of raw milk is illegal.
At Birchwood Farms in Newtown, Pa., owner Mike Tierney said 60 to 70 percent of his customers have New Jersey license plates.
“Raw milk is absolutely awesome. It’s really like a perfect food,” said Tierney, a veterinarian and third-generation farmer, who added that some cross-state milk buyers freeze it. “The more fat milk has, the easier it is to freeze.”
Raw milk advocates may soon be able to purchase their liquid gold closer to home. Earlier this year, the New Jersey State Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor of legislation to allow farmers to sell unpasteurized milk. A Senate vote is pending.
“Our farmers are missing that market,” said Assemblyman John DiMaio, a bill sponsor. “People are going to Pennsylvania to buy the product. Agriculture in New Jersey needs whatever it can get to get propped up.”
Farmers who sell raw milk could set their own prices because they are selling directly to the consumer, said Ed Wengryn, research associate with the New Jersey Farm Bureau. But the federal government sets the price of pasteurized milk, which is $1.54 a gallon wholesale, he said.
Conventional dairy farmers are going out of business at a rate of 16 per day in the United States because farmers are not getting a fair price for their milk, said Sally Fallon Morell, president of the Westin A. Price Foundation, a nutrition education organization. Milk sold in supermarkets is government-subsidized and grain producers and dairy companies are seeing the profit, not farmers.
“This milk (raw milk) is coming from small farms. You don’t have the economies of scale,” she said. “It needs to cost more.”
At least 3 percent of New Jersey’s population consumes raw milk, Morell said.
“Hundreds of thousands of dollars are going across the border,” she said.
Proponents, who claim raw milk can help cure allergies, help children with autism and aid in digestive problems, formed the grassroots group The Garden State Raw Milk in 2006 solely to help legalize the sale of raw milk here.
But the enthusiasm is not universal.
The Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control recommend drinking only pasteurized milk because bacteria that can cause life-threatening illnesses may lurk in raw milk.
The CDC identified 45 outbreaks of foodborne illness that implicated raw milk or cheese made from raw milk between 1998 and May 2005, according to the National Dairy Council. These outbreaks accounted for 1,007 illnesses, 104 hospitalizations and two deaths.
The FDA banned interstate sales in the 1980s but left it up to individual states to decide what to do about commerce within their borders. Some states allow raw milk to only be sold at the farm; others permit retail sale.
And the government has been raiding farms that allegedly do not comply with the law. Earlier this year, after a yearlong sting operation, it charged an Amish farmer in Pennsylvania for selling to customers across state lines.
“I’m sure in their mind they feel they are trying to protect people,” DiMaio said. “It’s not an illegal drug, it’s a natural God-given product.”
DiMaio said it’s up to the consumer to decide what he or she should consume. “People choose to eat raw oysters,” he said.
But the National Dairy Council is unbending.
During pasteurization, the temperature of milk is raised to at least 161 degrees Fahrenheit for more than 15 seconds, and then rapidly lowered, the NDC states on its website. In addition to helping extend milk’s shelf-life, many harmful bacteria are destroyed.
Joseph Heckman, a Rutgers University professor of soil science who writes and lectures on raw milk, counters that pasteurized milk sometimes, in fact, makes people sick and sometimes has resulted in death. Four years ago in Massachusetts, three people became infected with listeria and died from drinking bacteria-contaminated milk, he said.
“If you’re going to criticize raw milk on the basis of safety, then let’s look at pasteurized milk and its record. It’s not a perfect record,” he said. “They like to say pasteurization guarantees safety and it does not.”…”