The debate over raw milk has spilled into the public scene once again, and supporters and producers both say they are looking out for consumer safety.
Earlier this month, the state Department of Agriculture advised consumers to discard milk from two Pennsylvania farms, The Family Cow in Chambersburg and Green Acres Jersey Farm in Lebanon, after tests indicated the presence of harmful bacteria in milk samples.
For The Family Cow, it was the third positive test in two years, including the state’s largest raw milk-related foodborne illness outbreak. That incident, in January 2012, sickened 80 customers in four states.
The state Department of Health has not linked any sickened people to the most recent outbreak at either dairy, according to Holli Senior, the deaprtment’s deputy press secretary.
At least 10 raw milk contamination incidents have been reported in Pennsylvania since 2007, sickening about 300 people, according to data from James Andrews of Food Safety News.
Raw milk is hardly the only food with safety issues, though, notes Laurie Showman, who sells raw milk, cheese and other products at Showman Farms in Edinboro, Erie County.
Spinach, cantaloupe and tomatoes have all been recalled in recent years for bacterial contamination.
“Everyone’s taking their life in their hands eating that spinach salad,” she said.
Nor are all illnesses attributed to milk associated with raw milk. Many are caused by pasteurized milk that has become contaminated.
Public opinion on raw milk is divided even in the medical field, Showman said. She has had customers whose doctors have told them to use raw milk, while other customers’ doctors discouraged consuming it.
Consumer safety is a high priority for Showman and other raw milk producers. She washes the cows frequently, keeps cows from lying in manure and removes waste from the barn immediately. She also cleans any manure off the cows before milking.
Showman aims to maintain a spotless barn that customers can comfortably visit wearing their good clothes.
She checks the milk tubes for manure and disinfects the udders with multiple washes and an iodine dip.
“It’s really, really important to wash thoroughly,” she said.
P. Mark Lopez, a dairy veterinarian who owns Wholesome Dairy Farms in Yellow House, Berks County, agrees that udders should be “surgically clean.”
“I always tell my trainees that the teats have to be clean enough to put your mouth on, because that is what we are essentially asking our customers to do,” he said.
“As a dairy veterinarian, I have seen many milking parlors and almost no one goes through what we go through to prepare the cows for milking,” Lopez said. “In fact, I am often told that it is impossible to milk cows the way that we do, even though we do it every day, every cow, every time.
“You are either making clean milk or you are making excuses,” he said.
Raw milk producers must also have an independent lab do bimonthly cultures of their milk, he said.
Keeping a small herd is key to staying on top of cleaning, Showman said. Showman Farms used to milk 80 cows, but now that it produces raw milk, it has only 18. The farm also emphasizes cow comfort to reduce stress and the heightened chance of sickness that stress brings.
“You want good, healthy, clean animals,” she said.
Milk producers must be attentive to potential problems, Showman said. Bacteria can show up in milk when equipment breaks down or the tank does not keep the milk cold enough.
If a sagging pipe goes unnoticed for a few days, wash water might get trapped in the tube and start to grow bacteria.
“You have to be just alert all the time,” Showman said.
Showman’s farm has not had any illnesses reported since it began selling raw milk, and “our customer base grows weekly,” Showman said.
“There are different types of customers,” though, said Chris Ebersole, of Rockview Dairy in Shippensburg.
“There are some people that are looking for cheap milk,” and they are more easily swayed by news of bacterial outbreaks than customers who see raw milk as a healthier, tastier alternative to pasteurized milk, he said.
Keeping the price of raw milk high can reduce conflict with customers who do not buy into the value proposition of raw milk, as they will be unwilling to spend extra for it, he said.
When problems like those at The Family Cow or Green Acres hit the news, “that hurts us all. It can,” Ebersole said.
After such incidents, Rockview’s customers will ask questions about the safety of raw milk but will not be deterred from buying it.
“They will still be very faithful in supporting me,” Ebersole said.
The Family Cow declined comment for this article.
While cleanliness is important for any dairy operation, on-farm sanitation alone will never make raw milk as safe as pasteurized milk, said Amber Yutzy, a Huntingdon County Extension educator.
The bacteria that cause food poisoning will always be present in some amount in raw milk, meaning any raw milk could potentially lead to food poisoning. Heating the milk kills those microbes, nearly eliminating the danger, Yutzy said.
Because most raw milk is sold on the farm where it is produced, it is not required to undergo the tests —for somatic cell count, bacteria, antibiotics and other medications — that are administered before milk is processed at a bottling plant.
Bottlers also give producers an incentive to make high-quality milk by paying more for milk that meets certain targets. While most raw milk producers have more control over the price of their milk, they also are not subject to penalties from bottlers for having somatic cell counts or bacteria levels that are too high.
“That does not mean that (raw-milk producers) don’t have high-quality milk,” but their milk does not have the extra safeguards, Yutzy said.
Two positive bacteria tests halt sales at a raw milk operation, PDA press secretary Samantha Krepps said. After a farm is ordered to stop selling milk, it can start again only after two negative tests in 24 hours and a follow-up inspection.
State inspectors conduct four unannounced visits a year, and “we respond to any complaint that we get,” Krepps said.
Contamination incidents are handled on a case-by-case basis, and Krepps said the combination of regular inspections, complaint-based testing and sale stoppages are doing a good job of keeping the public safe.
“The system works,” she said. “Our inspections are diligent.”
The Family Cow was ordered to stop production Aug. 5 after a July 29 sample contained campylobacter. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the bacterium causes diarrhea, stomach pain and fever. Infection from the bacteria is rarely fatal. Most patients recover in a week without needing much medical treatment.
Campylobacter can, however, have more serious consequences, including a several-week paralysis known as Guillain-Barré syndrome.
The Green Acres sample was flagged for listeria on Aug. 13. That bacterium causes some of the same symptoms as campylobacter, such as fever and diarrhea, but listeria can also cause miscarriage or stillbirth. The CDC estimates that listeria kills about 260 people a year.
Bacteria typically get into milk through infected udders or manure on the udders. According to the CDC, almost half of U.S. chicken samples are infected with campylobacter. Unlike raw milk, chicken is heated before consumption, and heating kills the bacteria.
Raw milk has proved a divisive issue across the country. The Food and Drug Administration, which advises citizens not to drink unpasteurized milk, bans interstate sales of the product. States have a broad range of policies for sales within their borders.
The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture reported that no states legalized raw milk sales from 2008-11, while some states required raw milk producers to do more testing.
About 20 states, including Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio and West Virginia, ban all sales of unpasteurized milk.
In Pennsylvania, raw milk may be sold on the producing farm and at other locations, while other states, such as Missouri, allow only on-farm sales.
Selling raw milk is illegal in dairy giant Wisconsin, except for “incidental sales” on the farm and purchases by that farm’s employees.
The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture says producers are allowed to consume their own raw milk and serve it to their families and “nonpaying household guests.”
Raw milk legislation was pending in a half-dozen states this year, according to Dan Flynn of Food Safety News. Montana and Nevada have defeated proposals this year to allow raw-milk sales.
On Aug. 16, an Arkansas law went into effect allowing farmers there to sell up to 500 gallons of raw cow’s milk a month. The state had previously only permitted limited sales of raw goat milk.
The National Farmers Union endorsed raw milk at its conference this year, while the American Farm Bureau opposes it.