By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
A bottle of cold milk may not seem like a hot issue, but a push to legalize the sale and consumption of the raw version of the dairy product is stirring up a strong response.
This summer, the Indiana Board of Animal Health is holding a “virtual” public hearing — soliciting comments online — on an Indiana law that treats unprocessed, unpasteurized raw milk like contraband.
Hundreds of emails have flooded the agency’s inbox, and their contents reveal just how pitched the battle is: The most vehement of raw milk lovers are demanding government regulators get out of their refrigerators; raw milk foes predict a public health disaster if they do.
“It’s a hot-button issue,” said Denise Derrer, public information officer for BOAH, the state agency that regulates dairy farms.
Indiana is one of 20 states that ban the sale of raw, unpasteurized milk to consumers, citing concerns that it could harbor harmful pathogens — the reason why milk is pasteurized in the first place. But BOAH officials say they’ve given up trying to enforce the law, and acknowledge there’s a thriving black market fed by people who want to drink milk fresh from the cow.
At the the direction of the Indiana legislature, BOAH has formed an 18-member advisory panel, representing a spectrum of views, to weigh in on how raw milk sales could be regulated if legalized.
On that panel is Alan Yegerlehner, a sixth-generation dairy farmer who sells raw milk that comes from the grass-fed cows on his family farm in Clay City, Ind. He’s doing it legally: Indiana law bans the sale of raw milk for human consumption, but doesn’t prohibit selling it as pet food.
Yegerlehner’s milk is sold with a required label that reads: “Not for human consumption.” But he said his customers buy it with a wink and a nod.
“I don’t feel good about it but we think people should have a right to buy it,” Yegerlehner said. They’re willing to buy it at premium: A gallon of raw milk can run $6 to $8, twice or more what it costs for a gallon of the pasteurized version.
Yegerlehner said some people are turning to “herd shares” — paying a monthly fee to raw milk producers to “own” part of a cow. That lets them slip through a crack in the law that says it’s legal for people to drink raw milk if it comes from a cow they own.
Derrer said BOAH doesn’t recognize the validity of herd shares, but doesn’t have the resources to police raw milk sales. BOAH’s 12 inspectors already are responsible for regulatory oversight of the state’s 1,500 dairy farms.
Yegerlehner is convinced there’s got to be better way. While the Food and Drug Administration bans the interstate sale of raw milk — and has gone after an Amish farmer in northern Indiana for selling across state lines — there are states that have legalized it some form.
The state statutes that govern raw milk sales illustrate the deep divergence of opinion on its safety. It Kentucky, the only way to get raw milk legally is if it comes from a goat and obtained with a prescription from a doctor. California, a leader in raw milk sales, allows it to be sold both in stores and on the farm, but it has to meet stringent safety standards and carry a warning label.
Dave Forgey, who helped found the Indiana Professional Dairy Producers, milks about 300 pasture-fed cows on his Cass County farm. He’s a believer in store-bought pasteurized milk but thinks there’s room for the raw milk producers if the state is willing to impose stringent safety and testing standards.
“I like limited government too,” Forgey said. “But everybody consumes food and I see nothing wrong with the government testing it for safety. It gives us more credibility.”
The Indiana State Department of Health is on record opposing raw milk sales in Indiana. Officials there point to a February report by the Centers for Disease Control that found that 60 percent of the 121 dairy-related disease outbreaks in the last 13 years were caused by raw milk products. The CDC study found that 200 of the 239 people hospitalized due to dairy-related disease outbreaks were sickened by raw milk consumption. About 75 of those disease outbreaks occurred in the 21 states where it was legal to sell raw milk products at the time.
The FDA is investigating claims that raw milk from the Forest Grove Dairy in Middlebury, Ind., distributed through a Michigan food co-op, was the source of campylobacter, a bacteria that sickened at least 13 people who drank the milk. Dairy owner David Hochstetler told The Goshen News that he had an independent lab test of his milk for the bacteria and nothing was found.
“We oppose raw milk sales,” said Jennifer House, the veterinary epidemiologist at the Indiana State Department of Health. “There’s no research to say that’s good for human health and a lot of research that says that it isn’t.”
Raw milk advocates disagree. They’re convinced that pasteurizing milk — a process of heating and quickly cooling milk to kill pathogens such as E. coli, salmonella and listeria — also destroys beneficial bacteria, proteins and enzymes. Champions of raw milk argue its better for your immune and digestive systems and, because it’s typically produced on small local farms, it’s better for the earth.
In the deep stack of emails BOAH has received from hundreds of raw milk supporters are many that read like this: “I grew up drinking raw milk and I never got sick.”
Lindsay Klaunig, a cheesemaker who crafts artisan cheese from raw milk for Traders Point Creamery in Zionsville, also sits on the BOAH advisory panel. She’s an ardent advocate for raw milk, but would like to see the state adopt standards, based on best practices, for raw milk producers.
“Let’s put the politics of it aside,” Klaunig said. “This isn’t the first time government has had to regulate food. Let’s look at the risks and regulate accordingly.”
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at email@example.com.