Is raw milk real or really risky?

MARION, S.D. -- It was 5:15 a.m., and Tim Eisenbeis was off to work under a star-lit sky. He walks through the dark, past the crowing rooster in a nearby barn, to his milking parlor. He's regularly worked 15-hour days this summer, and another lon...

Raw milk
Tim Eisenbeis, owner of Happy Grazing dairy farm in Marion, S.D., washes the udder of a cow before getting ready to milk her at his farm.

MARION, S.D. -- It was 5:15 a.m., and Tim Eisenbeis was off to work under a star-lit sky.

He walks through the dark, past the crowing rooster in a nearby barn, to his milking parlor. He's regularly worked 15-hour days this summer, and another long day was in order during a recent September morning.

The days have been tough at times, but it is clear Eisenbeis is committed to the product he produces -- raw milk.

The small but up-to-date milking parlor in the southeast part of the state is one of a handful of raw milk facilities in South Dakota, serving about 275 households each week and producing about 75 gallons of milk per day.

It's a continuation of the way things have always been done for the Eisenbeis family, which has farmed in the area for five generations and sells its products under the Happy Grazing Farm name.


"We've done it very well with very good results for a long time," he says. "But I don't believe that everything technology gives us is necessarily good."

There are two strong opinions on the sale of raw milk. While supporters like Eisenbeis advocate its health benefits, public health groups say raw milk is too much of a risk because of potential bacteria it carries without getting pasteurized, which is the process of removing harmful pathogens from food.

South Dakota state law defines raw milk as milk that has not been pasteurized, and covers milk from cows, sheep, goats and other hoofed animals. The issue of relaxing regulations on raw milk hit the state Legislature earlier this year, but nothing was finalized by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.

Now, a work group headed by South Dakota Secretary of Agriculture Lucas Lentsch is hoping to find a compromise for both sides, and he wants to bring a solution to lawmakers during the next legislative session.

Eisenbeis, who holds a master's degree in agricultural science from Michigan State University, contends the product simply is not for everyone.

"I understand the public health concern," he says. "That's (the state's) job and there is always a risk. But I think our customers are also smart and well-educated and they can make decisions about what's good for them."

The process

"You're excused," Eisenbeis tells a group of nine cows as he leads them out of the milking stall. He's shuffling the cows through their morning routine, as 32 cows take their turns at six milking machines before heading back outside. The farm -- which has a Marion address but is closer to Freeman -- has about 40 cows in all.


Eisenbeis works from a pit that's about 5 feet below the udders of the Jersey cows he milks, doing away with the crouching that milkers had to do in days of old. While Holsteins produce more milk, Eisenbeis says Jersey cows are better grazers and calve easier, allowing him to save on the costs of feeding.

He and his father, Larry, have been selling their milk to customers for about five years. But he's been a raw milk person his whole life, and the business took off when the word spread that he sold to people in Sioux Falls.

"They just told each other about it, and it grew like that," he says.

Eisenbeis spent part of his childhood in Brazil, where he delivered milk on a bicycle door to door. After returning to the U.S. for college, he went back to Brazil for about 10 years. He says he garnered an ability to get close to customers personally when he was in Brazil.

Many farmers in the U.S. don't get to know the people who consume their products, he says.

"We're fortunate that we get that," he says. "We even get some fan mail. That's part of what keeps me coming back to the barn."

Eisenbeis says there's no way to pasteurize milk without losing some of its nutritional value. Pasteurization involves heating milk to a high temperature for a short period and then cooling it off quickly before bottling.

"It's just like anything you cook," he says. "When you cook food, you lose some of the nutrients and the parts that make it what it is."


The farm is certified organic, and the cows -- which usually weigh between 800 to 1,000 pounds -- munch on grass only. An 800-gallon tank in the barn collects milk and is stored until it is dispensed into half-gallon and gallon glass containers. He chooses glass because it helps retain freshness.

They also have chickens that produce organic eggs.

"It's a natural fit to have milk and eggs, you know," he says. "But they aren't matching what we produce in milk."

The farm sends trucks to Sioux Falls on routes four days per week and Yankton each Saturday. A route goes toward Mitchell and Alexandria every other week. The business advertises little and most of the 275 customers have heard about the farm through word of mouth. A gallon of milk costs $5.20, before a $2 delivery charge is assessed.

"We have quite a few people who look us up and want to give us a try," he says.

Eisenbeis' parents, Larry and Anette, fill the half-gallon and gallon jars that are sealed, labeled and put on the refrigerated delivery truck to be dropped off. Larry drives the route two days per week and neighbor Dennis Lehmann drives the other two days."It's quite the process we've got here," Larry says.

Proponents speak to health benefits, such as helping with cases of asthma or raw milk being consumable for those with lactose intolerance. Those claims are refuted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which is strongly against drinking raw milk.

"Just because we can't explain it from a scientific standpoint, it doesn't mean that it doesn't exist," Eisenbeis says. "We can't measure the benefits all the time."


In a milk state

Twenty-five states, including South Dakota, have some variation of laws on raw milk to allow consumers to purchase it. South Dakota's laws on raw milk were enacted in 2010. Iowa and Montana are among the regional states where it is not allowed.

In South Dakota, it's legal to purchase raw milk on the farm and through home delivery. Farmers are responsible for bottling the raw milk, and bottles must be clearly labeled as raw milk. The product can't be sold on retail shelves like grocery stores.

State law requires permits for dairies selling raw milk directly to consumers. Inspections are required at least every year and dairies must submit samples monthly for bacteria and residue testing.

Regardless, Eisenbeis is pleased the rules allow him to operate in a manner that is respectable.

But the risk of raw milk is one that rubs some traditional dairy farmers the wrong way, especially if there's a case of illness linked to drinking it. Roger Scheibe, the executive director of the South Dakota Dairy Producers, says bad publicity -- such as someone getting sick from drinking raw milk -- hurts all dairy farmers.

"An illness outbreak always gets media attention and consumers react negatively, reducing purchases for several weeks to months," Scheibe says. "One raw milk negative incident will cause the consumer to back away from buying and lose trust in all milk produced."

Scheibe says raw milk producers have the privilege, not the right, to produce raw milk and those producers should have to follow standards similar to what traditional dairy farmers observe.


"The production and raw milk quality standards to produce and market their milk supply to the consumer is not the same as the other 263 dairy farm permit holders in South Dakota that are required to comply with," he says.

Lentsch says as long as the product is legal, and there's consumer demand, he will see to it that raw milk producers follow the laws in place. He visited the Marion farm in July as part of the Raw Milk Work Group, which includes consumers, producers, professors and department of agriculture officials.

"It's clear that we have producers in the state that are legal to provide raw milk, and we have consumers that want to have access to it," Lentsch says. "We're going to do everything we can to work with that, so long as it's legal."

Lentsch says he's enjoyed chairing the work group, and the Eisenbeis farm reminded him of the dairy farm where he grew up. But the rules have to balance with what the bulk of South Dakota dairies work with.

"I've also had to be mindful of the fact that we are coexisting in a state with other dairy families that are producing milk for further processing, and it's really trying our very best to maintain a quality environment for everyone to be successful," he says.

But he's quick to note the risk raw milk carries.

"Clearly, raw milk for human consumption is still something of concern, if you're young, old, pregnant or sick," he says. "We have to be mindful that there's part of raw milk consumption that are still inherently dangerous."

The work group, which meets three times this year, has evaluated the rules and Lentsch says he doesn't expect large-scale changes. Eisenbeis, who is also on the work group, says the raw milk work sessions have been very positive and advocates for consumers to be able to make their own decision.


"People are smart," he says. "They're discriminatory, and they can make a decision for themselves."

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