COLLEGE PARK – Some Maryland residents see drinking raw milk as a normal part of a healthy diet. The federal government, however, does not.
The feds have cut off a supply of raw milk for Maryland residents from Pennsylvania. The move outraged some Marylanders who are forced to go out of state for raw milk because Maryland is one of 25 states in which sales for human consumption are illegal.
Last month, a federal district judge banned an Amish farmer in Pennsylvania from selling raw milk to Marylanders who were members of a local food club. The ruling followed a two-year undercover investigation of the online club, Grassfed on the Hill, by the Food and Drug Administration.
An FDA agent used an alias to become a member of the club, and ordered large quantities of unpasteurized milk to test. After lab tests proved the milk was raw, a fact the farmer Dan Allgyer openly admitted, Judge Lawrence Stengel issued an order blocking milk sales to the club.
Allgyer could not be reached for comment.
Liz Reitzig, a co-coordinator of the club from Bowie, said the government’s action was unreasonable.
“The benefits [of raw milk] need to be assessed in equal proportion to the risk,” Reitzig said. “Right now, it seems like the potential problems of raw milk are put under a microscope and people are failing to acknowledge the very real benefits that people experience.”
However, some dairy organizations, and the federal government, say raw milk poses a risk to public health. The International Dairy Foods Association supports the injunction issued against Allgyer, saying raw milk is too dangerous not to warrant federal oversight.
“U.S. dairy products are among the safest in the world,” said Peggy Armstrong, vice president of communications for the International Dairy Foods Association. “All milk intended for consumption should be pasteurized – it’s a matter of food safety.”
According to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of illness caused by raw milk and raw milk products was 150 times greater than outbreaks linked to pasteurized milk.
In 2009, the Maryland legislature considered several bills that would have allowed Marylanders to buy raw milk. A bill sponsored by Del. J.B. Jennings (R-Baltimore County) would have allowed Marylanders to enter into agreements with farmers known as “cow-shares.” The arrangements allow consumers to pay a farmer to house one or more cows, in exchange for access to the milk they produce.
Cow-shares were made illegal by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in 2006.
Jennings sponsored another bill that would have allowed for the sale of raw milk under heavy government regulation. Both bills stalled in the legislature without action in 2009 and have not resurfaced.
Meanwhile, it’s difficult for Marylanders to buy raw milk because of the federal ban on transporting it across state lines. The transportation of raw milk across state lines is illegal under federal law.
The Supreme Court has said the purpose of the interstate ban is to “safeguard the consumer from the time the food is introduced into the channels of interstate commerce to the point that it is delivered to the ultimate consumer.”
Raw milk advocates are trying to overturn the federal interstate ban. The Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund has filed a lawsuit challenging the ban on constitutional grounds.
“The Supreme Court has held that the right to privacy includes the right to raise a family, the right to the custody and care of your children, and parents deciding what nutrition they should have for their children is a part of that right,” said Pete Kennedy, president of the organization.
Presidential candidate and Texas Republican Rep. Ron Paul has also introduced a bill that would force all states to legalize the sale of raw milk.
Kennedy said the bill, which is currently stalled in the House, would make federal raw milk laws more logical.
“At the present time the law is dysfunctional. It’s legal to consume in every state, but in about half the states, the sale is still illegal,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy said the injunction against Allgyer, the Amish farmer, is unwarranted.
“It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars,” Kennedy said. “If he’d been accused of making people sick, that would be one thing, but he had a clean track record and I’m sure hundreds of his customers would credit him with helping to improve their health.”
This issue has brought together a strange coalition of civil libertarians, dairy farmers, organic food enthusiasts and environmental activists, who believe the government should not prohibit the interstate sale of raw milk.
Many who drink raw milk said they do so for the health benefits and the taste.
Gloria Mercer, a Thurmont resident who, along with her husband Frank Mercer, was recently hospitalized for an illness related to drinking raw milk, said she will continue to prefer raw milk over pasteurized milk.
“I drink it because I prefer the taste. I also like that it’s organic, and there aren’t any chemicals in it,” Mercer said. “It’s what our ancestors drank, and it was good enough for them.”
Reitzig said that those who drink raw milk understand the risk.
“There is a risk any time you put any food in your mouth for any reason,” Reitzig said. “We eat food because we enjoy it. A lot of people just enjoy raw milk more, and that should not be a crime.”