It was a cloudy and mild June day nearly four years ago when the agents came to Vernon Hershberger’s farm, 15 miles west of Baraboo in the rolling hills of Sauk County. They were from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP), and from the Sauk County Public Health Department, and they called their visit an inspection.
Vernon Hershberger calls it a raid.
In a report, one of the agents recorded what the team had found. There were cows, of course. And there was a milking barn, milking machinery and a stainless steel tank filled with milk. In what looked to the visitors like a retail store, located at one end of an 80-foot-long building across the dirt road from the barn, they found a dairy cornucopia: milk, buttermilk and cream. More containers held butter, cheese, cottage cheese, ice cream, whey, crème fraiche, yogurt and kefir – a sort of liquid cousin to yogurt made by culturing milk.
All were bottled in glass canning jars or in plastic tubs. They were labeled with the name of Hershberger’s farm, “Grazin’ Acres LLC,” and rested on display shelves and in glass-fronted refrigerators.
In another part of the same building, they found Hershberger culturing yogurt. There were the tools of his occupation: an ice-cream maker, a stainless steel butter churn and a milk separator.
In a criminal complaint lodged months later against Hershberger, an official with DATCP would describe the scene in the dry, painstakingly precise diction of official investigative reports everywhere: Hershberger “had what appeared to be cheese hanging in a cheesecloth that was draining what appeared to be whey at the time of the inspection.”
Before leaving the farm, the agents sealed Hershberger’s freezers with tape marked with the date, June 2, 2010. They sealed a small, heated, closet-like room where processed meat was curing and cultured milk products were aging. An ag department agent handed him a written order that forbade him from opening the freezers or the curing room and from moving their contents.
And into the stainless steel tank filled with 300 gallons of milk, they poured a blue dye, so that Hershberger would be unable to sell it.
The next day, Hershberger broke the seals and retrieved some of the forbidden food for his family and for Grazin’ Acres customers – all of whom he considered part owners of the farm under a co-op structure he had only recently put into place. He posted a video of his actions online.
The criminal complaint filed 18 months later charged Hershberger with four misdemeanors. They made the Amish-born farmer and father of 10 a nutritional outlaw for selling milk without any of three required licenses: for a food retailer, a milk producer and a dairy operator. He was also charged with violating the June 2, 2010, “holding order” that had barred him from breaking the seals or moving the food.
Hershberger would later, mostly, beat the rap – cleared by a jury of three out of the four charges. But what he was never officially accused of – and yet what Hershberger and his supporters assume is the real reason the state brought the full force of its agricultural regulatory apparatus down upon him – was selling unpasteurized milk.
Hershberger’s trial in 2013 brought into public view an obscure, largely underground, but thriving marketplace for milk straight from the cow – untainted, its advocates believe, by the standard treatment that has been all but universal for milk sold in this country for nearly three-quarters of a century. And when the trial was over, Hershberger went right back to doing what he had been doing for years – distributing raw milk and other unpasteurized dairy products to a growing number of enthusiasts.
Consumers of raw milk are relentless in their claim that unpasteurized milk tastes better, bolsters the immune system and is easier to digest – in short, that it’s all-around far more healthful than the same beverage when pasteurized.
“There’s no comparison in my mind,” says Milwaukee chef and entrepreneur Loulou Griffin Guolee. As a child, Griffin Guolee says, she was taken off of milk because she couldn’t digest it – a problem that stuck with her until she sampled fresh, raw milk decades later. Now, she knows the difference just by looking at it: “I’m a real food geek. I can see it right off the bat.”
Its adherents see the interest in raw milk as part of the larger and growing enthusiasm for fresh, locally grown food, supplied by small farms using organic and sustainable farming methods. By encouraging a direct relationship between the farmer who grows the food and the person who eats or drinks it, raw milk consumers and producers alike see their trade as the ultimate rejection of Food Inc.: the giant, corporately controlled system that dominates our food chain, from big agribusiness farms to mass producers of additive-laden processed and packaged foods to the sprawling supermarkets where we buy our groceries.
In 2013, a national local-food advocacy group included Wisconsin among the top 10 states for embracing the local-food ethic. Cities are supporting farmer’s markets and permitting backyard chicken coops. Through community supported agriculture (CSA) programs, people are signing up to buy subscriptions from family farms for regular delivery of locally grown produce and other
foodstuffs. Grass-fed beef, free-range chickens and meats from other locally raised livestock are gaining favor. Even major food-product companies and grocery chains tout organic lines free of additives.
But Wisconsin draws the line at raw milk. Although more than half of the states in this country allow the limited sale and distribution of unpasteurized milk, it remains illegal here.
Doctors, regulators, the dairy industry and even some farmers say that’s for good reason. With a certainty equal to that of the raw milk advocates, opponents claim the product is far too hazardous to risk legalizing its sale anywhere, much less in the Dairy State.
James Conway is a pediatrician specializing in infectious disease at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has also treated children in developing countries around the world, including Ethiopia, where he contracted a nearly fatal case of typhoid fever from raw milk cheese three years ago.
“Food- and waterborne disease is still one of the top five killers of children in the world,” says Conway, because sanitation measures like pasteurization remain infrequent or inadequate in less-wealthy countries. Yet Conway has treated several children right here in Wisconsin for preventable illnesses, and he is convinced they were caused by consuming raw dairy products.
To him, the risk seems patently obvious. To put it in graphic terms, the cow’s udder is so close to its anus that exposure to harmful fecal bacteria is to be expected, he says.
“This whole raw milk issue is one of moral justice,” the doctor says. Regardless of the rights of adults who may opt for raw milk, “kids can’t make that choice. By giving them raw milk, you’re exposing kids to unnecessary pathogens.”
Former Gov. Jim Doyle was so convinced of the danger that he vetoed a bill allowing the limited, legal sale of raw milk – even though it had passed the Legislature, controlled by fellow Democrats, by a wide margin. And in December 2013, the American Association of Pediatrics issued a seven-page statement endorsing a nationwide ban on raw milk sales.
In November 2013, a new bill to legalize the limited distribution of raw milk narrowly passed a state Senate committee. This January, its lead sponsor, Republican state Sen. Glenn Grothman, said he’d get it to the Senate floor as soon as he could count a majority of 17 votes in its favor. “People have drunk raw milk forever,” says Grothman, who took on the issue after a constituent told him about a relative whose farm “was shut down for selling raw milk.”
Raw milk consumers are “intelligent, health-conscious people,” says the senator, who drinks it himself. “And there’s a great deal of anecdotal evidence that it has made them healthier. In a free country in which 30 states, including virtually every other major dairy state, allow sales of raw milk, it would be highly unusual for Wisconsin not to follow suit.”
Yet perhaps the most public face of the raw milk fight in Wisconsin, farmer Vernon Hershberger, isn’t interested.
By being acquitted at his 2013 trial, Hershberger won an unofficial test of a strategy that has become widespread among raw milk buyers and sellers. Food-safety regulators have never made it illegal for farmers and their families to consume unpasteurized dairy products from their own animals; by some estimates, anywhere from a third to two-thirds of farm families do just that. People who want to buy or sell raw milk have turned to cooperative ownership arrangements to capitalize on that fact.
If you want to buy raw milk from Hershberger, you can’t just drive over to his farm to make a purchase. Would-be customers must first buy an ownership share for $25, making them members of the farm’s “herd-sharing” co-op. As part-owners of the herd, he explains, they have the same rights as any other farmer to drink unpasteurized milk from their own cows.
In setting up a system of regulating all raw milk transactions in the state, the Grothman bill would allow DATCP to “meddle in private affairs,” Hershberger says. The agriculture department has a role in protecting the safety of the public when it comes to food, he acknowledges. “But the public’s not involved here. It’s only private.”
Herd-share owners can visit the farm, can see for themselves how he runs the place, pitch in and help if they wish – and, as a benefit of ownership, can buy raw milk and other products. “We have that right,” says Hershberger, speaking not just for his family but for the entire co-op membership. “We don’t need permission to do it.”
The French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur wasn’t thinking of milk more than 150 years ago, but rather wine and beer, when he developed the process that bears his name. While a chemistry professor at the University of Lille in France in the 1850s, Pasteur was commissioned by a local beverage purveyor who wanted to stop his sugar beet-based alcoholic drink from going sour. At the time, most people assumed fermentation was a chemical process; Pasteur believed it was the result of microorganisms. Spoilage, he suspected, occurred as the microbes continued to proliferate.
Boiling the liquid killed off the responsible microorganisms entirely but ruined the taste. So Pasteur tried heating the liquid to a temperature below boiling and holding it at that level for a fixed period of time. It worked. Most of the bugs were killed off, the flavor of the drink was preserved, and its shelf life was extended. He experimented with a variety of liquids, including milk, and pasteurization was born.
But like many breakthroughs, it wasn’t immediately recognized. The entire germ theory Pasteur relied upon and helped prove would remain suspect in mainstream science for years to come. And as pasteurization did take hold, its primary use remained the preservation of wine and beer.
In the United States, the federal government began urging states to encourage or require pasteurization of commercially sold milk in 1924. But not until 1987 did the Food and Drug Administration prohibit the interstate shipment of raw milk for human consumption. By 2011, the FDA said in a report, milk was responsible for less than 1 percent of all U.S. food- and water-borne disease outbreaks – down from 25 percent before World War II.
Raw milk consumption continued, mainly in the households of dairy farmers. That’s how Vernon Hershberger grew up. And that’s how his children have, too.
Hershberger is lean, not quite 6 feet tall, with short hair the color of the Jersey cows that populate his 35-animal milking herd. He has a trimmed, wispy beard and no mustache, in the manner of men in the Amish culture into which he was born 42 years ago. He speaks in unadorned language, his voice firm but calm, colored with a slight rural drawl.
Back in north central Ohio where he grew up, Hershberger’s father had farmed organically. By the time Vernon reached adulthood in the mid-1990s, he was planning to do so as well. But farmland had gotten too expensive in Ohio, so in 1999, he and his wife, Erma, migrated to Wisconsin to join an Amish community around Sauk County. They bought a farm on Highway 23 near the village of Loganville, just outside Reedsburg. Because previous owners had used chemical fertilizers, they had to farm for three years before they could declare their output was organic.
“We had no intention of doing raw milk,” Hershberger says as he busies himself preparing jars of kefir and tubs of cottage cheese on a chilly October morning. “That all came about by accident.” The couple’s Amish faith forbade them from owning or driving motor vehicles. An elderly, non-Amish couple befriended them and gave them rides from time to time. For payment, “they wanted to get some raw milk right out of our tank, to consume what they’d always consumed all their lives.”
By 2003, perhaps half a dozen families from around the area were buying or bartering for raw milk from the Hershberger farm. He learned of other farms selling raw milk regularly. At a meeting the next year set up by state officials for farmers interested in direct sales to consumers, Hershberger says, a speaker mentioned in passing that when it came to distributing food, including raw milk, “in a family setting, you don’t have to have a license.” Back home, he drew up a private “food club” contract form for customers that he relied on for the next six or seven years.
By then, more buyers were finding their way to his door – up to as many as 100 families. The Hershbergers started selling chicken and beef along with dairy products, still working out of the tiny farmhouse kitchen. They had two refrigerators (powered off the grid, in keeping with Amish principles), but eventually, the traffic was too heavy to manage out of their home. Across the driveway from his barn, Hershberger built a new “farm pantry” for processing and storing food he would distribute. It’s where he is working now as he tells his story.
In 2007, DATCP sent Hershberger an order to stop selling frozen raw meats from his farm. The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, which defends farmers seeking to distribute directly to consumers, sent a letter to the state on his behalf asserting that Hershberger’s food club arrangement put it outside state regulations. Two years later, he rebuffed a DATCP attempt to inspect the site.
It was during this time that Hershberger connected with a California activist and self-styled nutritionist who had spent decades promoting not just raw milk, but raw food generally, including raw meat. Aajonus Vonderplanitz, who died in an accidental fall in August 2013, had credited raw food and beverages for curing him of autism and cancer, although those claims haven’t been medically verified. Self-taught in nutrition and the law, he was a controversial figure in the raw food movement, particularly in the last decade.
Hershberger learned of Vonderplanitz through the Californian’s work on behalf of an Indiana farmer who was targeted in an FDA crackdown on interstate transport of foods, including raw milk, to members of a food club. Vonderplanitz had asserted that because the club was private and didn’t sell to the public, it was outside FDA regulation. The aggressive defense appeared to have led regulators to back off.
In late spring 2010, with the help of Vonderplanitz, Hershberger changed the farm’s operation to the current business model, with all of its livestock held in common by customers under a leasing arrangement. “By law, to lease is to own,” he says. “So basically, they partly own the animal, and they’re getting food from their animal.”
Days after he completed the paperwork, the state and local health inspectors showed up.
After he was criminally charged in December 2011, Hershberger says, he interviewed lawyers. But he was only willing to retain one who would work for free. Some were too aggressive for his taste. One attorney seemed too eager to take on the state Department of Justice’s prosecuting lawyer, motivated more, perhaps, by one-upmanship or revenge than by justice. The lawyer, he says, showed no interest in a fundamental pillar of Hershberger’s defense: that he was acting out of religious conviction.
By the time of his conflicts with state authorities, Hershberger and his family had become estranged from the Wisconsin Amish community that they’d come here to join. Eventually, they left the Amish life entirely, dispensing with the horse and buggy emblematic of the culture of their past, and Vernon Hershberger learned to drive.
In 2008, he started attending a conservative Christian church in a nearby community. That church maintains some values similar to the Amish: It stresses simplicity, encourages separation from worldly matters and embraces pacifism. Members dress in plain clothing and women cover their hair with caps, similar to those worn by other Anabaptist groups such as the Mennonites. In sharp contrast to the Amish, though, the church is explicitly evangelical: Members hand out religious tracts in Madison on Saturdays and support a mission in rural
Haiti that includes religious schools as well as a medical clinic.
Hershberger speaks casually of feeling “led” to do certain things. Yet in conversation, he doesn’t dwell on the religious side of his devotion to raw milk and distributing organic foods. In legal papers, however, Hershberger put religion front and center. In one motion, he likened a particular livestock regulation to the “mark of the beast” associated with the Antichrist in the New Testament’s Book of Revelation. He contended that in withdrawing from the state’s jurisdiction, “I pursued my rights of we the people to self-govern under God’s laws of compassion to feed and care for my fellow man rather than greed for money, control and power.”
His faith also influenced another choice: Although he didn’t back down from defending himself in court, he chose to not sue the state. That reflected his Amish upbringing, which opposes using the courts to redress perceived wrongs, as well as the values of his current church, which forbids “suing at the law” by those seeking entrance to the Kingdom of God.
In July 2012, the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund stepped forward to aid Hershberger, enlisting Madison lawyer Glenn C. Reynolds to represent him in the criminal case. Ten months later, in May 2013, he went to trial at the courthouse in Baraboo, the Sauk County seat. Scores of sympathizers turned out to show their support; raw milk websites and mainstream agricultural news outlets alike eagerly followed the proceedings.
The prosecution took the position that raw milk was irrelevant to the trial. By order of the court, the words “raw milk” and testimony about its safety or hazards were off the table. Instead, the trial focused entirely on whether Hershberger and Grazin’ Acres fell under the state’s jurisdiction – or whether, because of the cooperative ownership structure, it was beyond the regulators’ reach.
When the five-day trial was over, the jury deliberated for four hours, reaching its verdict in the early morning of Saturday, May 25. Jurors accepted Hershberger’s defense and found him not guilty of running an unlicensed retail food establishment, not guilty of being an unlicensed milk producer, and not guilty of operating an unlicensed dairy. He was convicted only of violating the holding order.
At a hearing in early June 2013, state prosecutors asked the judge to revoke Hershberger’s bail, which would have sent him to jail. The request was denied. Nineteen days after the verdict, on June 13, Hershberger was sentenced and ordered to pay a $1,000 fine plus $513 in court costs. He paid that day. He is appealing the conviction.
Although he seeks to clear his record entirely, the verdict was an important vindication. But he also believes that his principled refusal to either countersue or simply hire “the blood-thirstiest lawyer I could find” redounded strongly in his favor.
“What really made this case so powerful is this farmer is doing what he feels called to do, and the state just absolutely did not let him,” Hershberger says. “Not only that, they tried to put him in jail. That really fired people up.”
The trial also had another unexpected effect: It brought him new members.
It’s a cold night in the middle of the week. Doreen and Darryl Hulett are in the cozy dining room of their refinished bungalow on the outskirts of Bay View. On the table sits a platter of crackers along with salsa, pickles, cheese and mustard; all but the crackers are homemade in their kitchen. “I’m a real foodie,” says 49-year-old Doreen, who chose the nickname “foodnazi” for her email address.
Doreen Hulett is a vegetarian. She gave up beef and pork some 17 years ago, and more recently quit chicken because of the factory-like conditions under which most commercial poultry is raised. Darryl, 52, still eats meat, but not much, he says. When their daughters graduated from high school and moved out, the couple became more interested in locally grown, fresh and organic food. They have a sizable backyard vegetable garden, and Doreen has been perfecting her canning techniques.
When the city of Milwaukee legalized raising chickens, the couple built a coop. “I call it the Taj Mahal of chicken coops,” Doreen says with a chuckle.
With the change in their eating habits, the Huletts began buying pasteurized organic milk bought from stores like Outpost. But after Doreen saw that commercial cheeses in the store were often made with animal rennet from calves’ stomachs, she wanted to make her own cheese. She heard that raw milk was better for cheesemaking. When they searched for it, “we had a heck of a time finding a source of raw milk,” she says.
Internet searches led them to accounts of Vernon Hershberger’s trial, and from there, to his website, where supporters have rallied to his cause and where reports on his case are posted. In August, the Huletts joined the Grazin’ Acres farm as members. Since then, Doreen Hulett has been busy learning to make farmer’s cheese – a moist, slightly tangy cheese – and mozzarella. “I can taste that milk” in the cheese she makes, Doreen says. “Next, I’m going to be making butter.”
For Theresa and Joe Langer of Greenfield, the search for raw milk was about much more than the aesthetics of the dining table. When the couple’s infant daughter, Ilyana, was born a year ago, Theresa, 25, breast-fed her. But her own milk production was not enough, so with some reluctance, she turned to formula.
Her parents say Ilyana didn’t digest that well. The child’s pediatrician said she appeared sensitive to milk and urged a soy formula. Theresa balked. “Soy is very harmful,” she says. Between a family history of breast cancer and material she’s read claiming a soy-breast cancer link, she wouldn’t go that route. (The American Cancer Society and other mainstream medical outlets have disputed claims that soy increases breast cancer risk.)
Theresa Langer initially sought goat’s milk, but without much success. “I was reading up online, and I learned that raw milk is a better option,” she says. In summer 2013, she began calling farms and was prepared to drive more than 130 miles to buy from a farm south of Joliet, Ill. But a telephone call to the Weston A. Price Foundation, an alternative nutrition organization that, among other things, advocates raw milk, put her in touch with Loulou Griffin Guolee. In August, she and her husband joined Hershberger’s growing list of Milwaukee herd-share members.
Loulou Griffin grew up on a pig farm outside of Boston in the late 1970s and ’80s. At 16, she left home and got a job at a bed-and-breakfast in New Hampshire, where she soon gravitated to working in the kitchen. “I was lucky to start in a place that was very high-end,” she says. The trend toward organic, locally sourced ingredients “was already happening in high-end cuisine,” she continues. “I’ve stayed in that kind of cooking ever since.”
At the age of 5 or 6, Griffin had stopped drinking milk entirely because it gave her indigestion. Decades later, while working as a cook in Colorado, her search for the best ingredients led her to area farms with grass-fed cows and offerings of raw milk and raw-milk products. That milk, she could drink with no difficulty, she says, and she made it her first choice when recipes called for milk. Three years ago, Griffin Guolee moved to Milwaukee, where her husband, John Guolee, had grown up. While he took a teaching job, she established herself as a caterer and chef for hire.
In Wisconsin, she couldn’t find the raw milk she now favored. Organic pasteurized milk she bought from Outpost was good enough for her to cook with, but for her own consumption, it didn’t measure up. Once again, she stopped drinking milk.
Through her sister in the Washington, D.C., area – “she’s also in the illegal milk trade,” Griffin Guolee jokes – she connected first with some national raw milk activists, and then with Hershberger. In June, just after his trial, she joined the herd-share program. She also became the pipeline for Hershberger to distribute milk to more members in the Milwaukee area. The farm established a weekly drop-off of products at her home, where Milwaukee-area members like the Huletts and the Langers can go every Monday to pick up their orders. By Thanksgiving, Griffin Guolee says, the Milwaukee drop-off was serving more than a dozen people who placed orders every week, as well as up to 30 additional less-frequent buyers.
They are an eclectic mix of people. “I have little punk rockers, and old hippies, and very religious people,” says Griffin Guolee. “It’s all over the place.”
Hershberger says that diversity is typical of his farm’s membership, which has grown to about 220. “They don’t have that much in common except that they want raw milk,” he says.
Raw milk’s champion in the Legislature has also noticed that enthusiasts don’t fit in one cultural pigeonhole. Grothman, outspoken in his deep-red politics, is more often the poster boy for the state Capitol’s rightward tilt. “One of the enjoyable things about working on this bill is that you are helping free, independent thinkers on both the right and the left,” he says. “The one thing they share in common is a love of independence and the ability to think outside the mainstream.”
James Conway admits he should have known better.
In the winter of 2011, the UW pediatrician had made a trip to Ethiopia for the university’s Global Health Institute, where he’s associate director for health science. The evening before he and four students were to fly back to the United States, they were hosted at a celebratory banquet. Their salads were garnished with unpasteurized goat cheese.
“I never do this,” Conway said quietly to a member of his group. And that’s true, he says: “I never eat cheese outside of the developed world, and I never drink milk where I’m not sure if it’s pasteurized.”
Yet as a guest, he was on the spot. “I felt it would be rude not to eat the food.” Manners trumped caution. He ate the salad.
The day after his return, Conway says, he and his family were on a flight to a long-planned ski vacation in Utah. He was feeling uncomfortable even before they landed.
They arrived at the resort on a Saturday. Conway felt miserable, exhausted and had a rash. “I’m a stubborn doctor,” he says. “We know everything about everything. I decided I had jet lag,” or perhaps altitude sickness.
He assumed he could just rest and he’d perk up. He was overruled. “My wife said, ‘That’s it. You look horrible. You’re going to be seen.’” By Monday, Valentine’s Day, he was in a Salt Lake City hospital intensive care unit, infected with salmonella typhi: typhoid fever.
Conway’s blood pressure plummeted and he was unconscious for nearly three days. “I nearly died,” he says. Three weeks of intravenous antibiotics helped cure him.
Back in Madison, Conway learned that everyone in his Ethiopia group had gotten sick, although his illness was the worst. For him, the experience just reinforced his long-held opposition to unpasteurized dairy products.
It’s not just in far-away, less-developed countries that Conway has treated severe illnesses from raw dairy products. A toddler he saw developed salmonella food poisoning, including cramps, fever and bloody diarrhea. “The likely cause was certain food items prepared from dairy products obtained directly from a farm,” he says. Although adults often bounce back after only having mild symptoms, little children with less-developed immune systems can get hit much harder. In this case, the patient was on antibiotics for a month, and could not return to child care until the infection was completely gone.
Before joining UW, when Conway worked in Indiana, he treated another toddler-aged child whose E. coli infection the doctor also attributed to exposure to unpasteurized dairy products. The infection required antibiotics so powerful that they had the side effect of inflaming the child’s blood vessels. Kidney failure forced doctors to put the child on dialysis for a year, he says. The child “was one of the lucky ones,” the doctor says: Kidney function eventually returned. But others haven’t been so fortunate.
Conway contends contamination is all but inevitable. His concern that unpasteurized milk is a public health hazard is widespread within both the medical and food-safety professions. In a 2008 statement, the International Association for Food Protection called the risks of raw milk – not just for salmonella and E. coli, but for other bacteria and microorganisms, including listeria, campylobacter, yersinia and brucella – “overwhelmingly clear.” A 2012 paper from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found the rate of dairy-related disease outbreaks was double in states where the raw milk trade is legal. A flurry of similar reports, along with periodic outbreaks of diseases blamed on unpasteurized milk, culminated in the American Academy of Pediatrics statement in late 2013 calling for a nationwide ban on raw milk sales.
Raw milk opponents have no shortage of numbers with which to make their case. A series of studies in recent years identified raw milk as the culprit in various disease outbreaks and pointed out how the incidence of dairy-related illness has plummeted since pasteurization became routine. The 2012 CDC paper reported that, of dairy-related disease outbreaks from 1993 to 2006, 60 percent involved unpasteurized dairy products. Moreover, said the paper, those sickened by raw milk were 13 times more likely to be hospitalized than those who had drunk pasteurized milk. A 2009 paper in the medical journal Clinical Infectious Diseases recited data from unrelated outbreaks in five states over the course of the mid-2000s. Each of the episodes led to serious illnesses, and children accounted for many of those sickened. And all of them, the authors pointed out, were in states where raw milk sales are legal.
Yet as dramatic as those reports might seem, there’s enough ambiguity in the data for the raw milk camp to challenge and discount it. There simply is no hard-and-fast number of confirmed illnesses each year, statewide or nationally, attributable to unpasteurized dairy products – or any foodborne illness, for that matter. Many food poisoning cases probably occur without ever being identified. And state and local health reports are voluntary and incomplete. Instead, the CDC relies on statistical assumptions to make general projections of the incidence of food poisoning of all kinds each year – but those aren’t broken down by any particular type of food.
Because of those methods, raw milk advocates like journalist David Gumpert have argued that the projections are wildly inflated. In his 2013 book Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Food Rights, Gumpert points to a CDC survey that suggested as many as 9 million people nationwide consume raw milk. Meanwhile, he writes, perhaps 25 to 175 cases of raw dairy-related illnesses are actually identified each year. Gumpert has argued those numbers have shown unpasteurized dairy “wasn’t anywhere near the scourge it had once been.” And raw milk’s defenders contend that sloppy science may lead illnesses to be attributed to raw milk when the reality is more complicated – a claim that raw milk’s critics find unpersuasive.
Conway calls pasteurization a victim of its own success: The general public, he believes, simply isn’t aware of its health benefits because they haven’t seen the hazards of widespread raw milk consumption. “There’s no question that the data is absolutely incontrovertible that society and individuals are protected, and the industry, small and large, are protected by having a clean product,” he says. “The argument in favor of raw milk is, at best, people’s opinions.”
Yet the intensity of such opposition and the credentials of raw milk’s critics don’t dissuade those who sell it or those who consume it. Raw milk advocates believe that beneficial bacteria in the milk – which are also destroyed in the pasteurization process – outcompete pathogens in unpasteurized milk. They also believe that early exposure to bacteria will confer natural immunities that generations of pasteurization have diminished in most people.
Alissa Effland, a self-employed graphic artist and marketing director who works out of her home in Pewaukee, began using raw milk when living in Utah, where it was illegal unless purchased directly from a specially licensed farmer. She was nursing her twin daughters about five years ago and supplementing with an organic milk formula when her mother, back in Wisconsin, drew her attention to literature from the Weston Price Foundation recommending raw milk. She tried it, and then learned to make raw milk yogurt as well.
“I was scared at first because of all the fear-mongering and the scare tactics,” says Effland. “So I was just really cautious at first about how I made my yogurt. But the more I did it, and the more I read about it, the more I understood that there’s such a great amount of natural, healthy bacteria. They do a great job of fighting off the nasty bacteria.”
Effland believes switching to raw milk for her infant daughters cleared up a rash that she blames on the formula she was feeding them. And she says she’s never known anyone who has gotten ill from it.
Hershberger doesn’t deny that raw milk has been known to be contaminated with pathogens. “The thing that bothers me about doctors,” he adds, “is that if someone comes in sick and they have had raw milk, they have to report it to the local health department. Not many questions are asked – automatically raw milk gets a bad name.”
Among raw milk advocates, there’s a prevailing narrative about how raw milk came to be seen as so hazardous. A century ago, cities industrialized, and people, whether rural Americans or European immigrants,
crowded in to take industrial jobs. Families needed milk, so dairy operations also moved into cities, where the animals were as crowded as the people and sanitation was poor to nonexistent. Under those conditions, the risk of disease was increasingly unavoidable.
Although there aren’t urban dairy farms any more, this theory holds, the risk continues in a modern, highly consolidated and mechanized dairy industry that jams huge herds into close quarters. Viewed in this way, the solution isn’t to require indiscriminate pasteurization. Instead, small farms, kept as clean as possible, with cattle fed mostly or exclusively on grass rather than on grains like corn, are the key to ensuring the safety of unpasteurized milk. “You can’t just get it from anybody,” Griffin Guolee says. “If there was a factory farm where I could get raw milk, I wouldn’t touch that with a 10-foot pole.”
Hershberger says he ships milk samples monthly to an out-of-state lab that serves farmers who sell raw milk. His milk has always tested negative for pathogens, he says. “We test for four different pathogens and also for coliform bacteria. We post those results in the building, where members can come in and look at them.”
And many raw milk advocates place pasteurization in the same category as other production practices among big food producers, whether it’s giving antibiotics or growth hormones to beef cattle or using genetic engineering to develop food plant strains – genetically modified organisms, or GMOs – that resist pesticides and produce higher yields. They point out instances in which regulated foods – including pasteurized dairy products – have been implicated in major outbreaks, too.
Advocates voice the suspicion that medical and governmental regulators are driven not by public health concerns but by the interests of large, corporate dairy producers. “They’re also telling us that all those GMOs are perfectly safe,” Griffin Guolee says. “And they tell us medicines are perfectly safe.”
Like most who favor raw milk, Effland says her preference for it simply reflects her larger interests when making choices about food for herself and her family. “It’s all just a part of us being healthy and doing things the most natural way, limiting the amount of processing in any food that we consume,” she says.
Up to a point, James Conway is a kindred spirit. “I’m all-in on the ‘I want to know where my food came from and support the local farmer’ philosophy,” the pediatrician says. “I understand the concept of people wanting to go with locally sourced stuff. We’ve done the same thing.” Conway and his family buy meat from a Madison-area purveyor whose livestock is all grass-fed and hormone-free. “We only buy cage-free chicken eggs now.”
But he views pasteurization as a fundamentally different matter. The vast majority of peer-reviewed research, he contends, shows no advantage to raw milk and confirms its hazards. Bacterial contamination is a risk with all other farm-grown foodstuffs. But fruits, vegetables and meats “are either washable or cookable in a way that you can diminish the bacterial contamination that comes with them,” he says. The only way to do the equivalent with milk is pasteurizing it.
Still, that conviction seems unlikely to shake those who remain adamant that raw milk’s dangers have been overstated and its benefits ignored.
Beside the door to the pantry building at Vernon Hershberger’s farm, a sign, printed out from a computer in black ink on plain, white paper, sums up the farmer’s closing argument.
“Fresh, raw, local foods. The PERFECT foods provided by our Lord,” it states.
Below that, the ink is red, and in all capital letters.
“DON’T EVEN TRY TO TELL ME THAT YOU KNOW BETTER THAN HE.”