Raw milk: Revolutionary or risky?

BOZEMAN, Mont. -- Cherilyn DeVries' three-acre plot of land east of Bozeman, Mont., where she lives with her husband and three homeschooled sons, is an unlikely corner of counterculture.

BOZEMAN, Mont. -- Cherilyn DeVries' three-acre plot of land east of Bozeman, Mont., where she lives with her husband and three homeschooled sons, is an unlikely corner of counterculture.

On a recent morning, DeVries tucked herself into Carhartt coveralls and set into the zero-degree morning as a biting wind slid off the north slope of the Gallatin Mountains.

She carried a 5-gallon bucket of water and a stainless steel milk pail down a short path to a shed built into the hillside. There, her three alpine goats eagerly await breakfast and chickens clucked in a cozy coop.

"Good morning," DeVries greets.

The goats return the sentiment by jockeying to be the first to nuzzle and nibble their owner at the gate.


They ramble behind DeVries as she walks across their pen and through another gate, where the goats -- Bunny, Bumble and Bria -- are invited, one by one, to have their breakfast.

To eat, the goats climb onto a raised wooden stand that makes it easier to milk them, their hooves knocking loudly as they willingly jumped up on the platform.

They have become accustomed to DeVries massaging their udders as they munch on their morning grass and alfalfa, regardless of whether they are producing milk. Only the biggest, Bunny, has had kids, and so was the only one to give milk.

The sound of milk hitting frosty steel pail echoes in the canister and steam rises as DeVries skillfully massages the warm milk out of Bunny. But arrival of winter has cut down on her producing, giving DeVries about two cups of fresh goat milk.

Joining her son, who had gathered a handful of eggs from the hens in the barn, she walks back up to the house, runs the milk through a porous filter into a tall glass jar, and sets it in the fridge -- later to be poured over cereal, sipped with dinner and, if there is enough, used for homemade yogurt.

Everything DeVries did that morning, as she does most mornings, is legal, but barely.

By law, milk in Montana must be pasteurized -- or heated to the point that bacteria in the milk are killed -- and exceptions to the rule are few. Were DeVries to do anything more than share the milk with her family, she would be in violation of the law.

But across the country, and in the Gallatin Valley, dissent is rising from people who find raw milk to either be better for their health, better for their local economy or both.


DeVries bought her first illicit supply eight years ago when her infant son was suffering from eczema, and his parents were told raw milk, which naturally holds microbes some consider healthful, could hold the cure.

It didn't work, but DeVries says she still thinks her family is healthier. That's because raw milk contains "probiotics," microorganisms thought beneficial to the health that are killed in the pasteurization process.

"We (society) are seeing a lot more disease because we're without the probiotics in our food," she sys. "We have this theory that we'll be healthy if we kill all the bugs."

As chronicled in the 2009 book "The Raw Milk Revolution," raw milk has been shown to relieve lactose intolerance. Researchers in Europe also have found an association between kids who drink raw milk and lower incidents of asthma and common allergies.

The author, David E. Gumpert, goes as far as to say that he's had fewer coughs and colds since he started drinking raw milk, chalking it up the good bacteria in his gut.

It's a similar logic followed by marketers for DanActive, a yogurt with probiotics advertised to keep snackers healthy by putting disease-fighting bugs in the digestive track, where "70 percent of your immune system is."

Unwanted bugs

However, bugs such as E. coli and salmonella also have been known to turn up in milk. If it goes untreated, those bacteria can prove deadly to humans. Thus, the state of Montana has taken a hard line against its sale.


"It's our understanding that it is not legally possible to provide raw milk for human consumption under Montana law," says Jon Ebelt, spokesman for the Montana Department of Health and Human Services. "DPHHS considers the product adulterated as defined" in Montana law.

In an e-mail sent earlier this year to several producers by the Department of Livestock and obtained by the Chronicle, Milk and Egg Inspector Rosemary Hickey warned the dairy farmers suspected of selling unpasteurized milk that "it is illegal to distribute raw milk for public consumption."

Tongue-in-cheekly, DeVries says she decided to buy her own goats "so my family can have raw milk without having to feel like we're criminals."

But while she can joke about the illicit nature of raw milk, she is guarded when discussing who she used to buy from, who sells raw milk now or even how people without goats or cows can get raw milk. Putting that sort of information in the public eye could tip off health officials, she fears.

Producers who reportedly sell raw milk are curt and secretive when approached by possible customers. The fear is that any caller could be an effort to entrap them or set them up.

"They don't know whether it's a mole on the other end," DeVries says. "You have to be really, really careful," she says. "You never know who's going to let something slip."

Across the country, regulation of raw milk runs the gamut, with Montana landing on the most restrictive end of the spectrum. Eight states allow it to be sold in grocery stores, four allow it to be sold as pet food only and seven states allow cow share programs -- where a number of people all own a stake in a cow and, thus, aren't technically buying its milk.

Ten states, including Montana and North Dakota, have an outright ban on unpasteurized milk.


South Dakota and Minnesota allow cow share programs and the sale of raw milk on the property where the milk is produced.

Public health 101

Theories abound on why raw milk is outlawed. While some see it as public health 101, others see the prohibition as economics at its most sinister -- a hurdle erected to trip up small dairy farmers and empower industrial-size operations.

The public health argument is bolstered by episodes such as the one unfolding in Washington state, where raw milk is legal. Three customers of the Dungeness Valley Creamery in Sequim, Wash., have fallen ill with a strain of bacteria found at the creamery.

Montana's own prohibition on raw milk dates back to the late 1970s when a small outbreak of E. coli was linked to a raw milk creamery outside Missoula, Bill Hedstrom, a Kalispell, Mont., dairy farmer, says.

Hedstrom, who was licensed to sell raw milk at the time, says that while state officials were unable to prove the bacteria came from the milk, the news shifted public opinion against raw milk and the Legislature quickly passed the law banning it.

"It's like, who can argue with clean air, clear water? Nobody would" argue with clean milk, he says.

But Hedstrom says the new law also got help from bigger dairies, which stood to benefit if small producers such as him couldn't sell directly to stores and customers. And many proponents of raw milk say it's ridiculous to prohibit small dairies from selling raw milk to a few customers yet allow the mass distribution of food that led to the huge E. coli outbreak in early 2009 that sickened 65 people in 29 states.


Virginia farmer Joel Salatin, an outspoken proponent, argues big dairies still are behind much of the effort to keep raw milk illegal.

"Make no mistake, as the local food system takes flight, the industrial food system is fighting back. With a vengeance," he writes in the forward to "The Raw Milk Revolution." "By demonizing, criminalizing and marginalizing the integrity food movement, the entrenched powers that be hope to derail this revolution."

Becky Weed, a Gallatin Valley sheep rancher who has followed the raw-milk debate in Montana, says that, in Montana at least, the discussion has been more honest than what Salatin describes.

Different conclusions

A former member of the Montana Board of Livestock, Weed says local milk producers she's talked to say they wouldn't mind if raw milk were made legal. Still, she says, the thought that pasteurized is the only safe way to drink milk is wildly held.

"We grew up learning about Louie Pasteur," the chemist for whom pasteurization is named, she says. "Isn't it a great thing and isn't pasteurized milk the best thing since sliced bread?'

"Serious, well-educated people can come to different conclusions on this," she says. "People differ on how much the government should get involved in making the world safe for us."

Today, 37 dairy farms -- with herds that range from 50 to 1,000 cows in size but tend toward the lower number -- belong to the Bozeman-based Country Classic Dairy cooperative, which allows the farmers to band together to meet the costs to bring milk to market, including pasteurization machines. Many Gallatin Valley farmers are members, as is Hedstrom.


The Country Classic plant, which turns raw milk into the Grade-A pasteurized milk sold in stores, stands in stark contrast to DeVries' minimalist operation.

In a high-ceilinged room with a concrete floor, a stainless-steel machine whirs as it heats raw milk to 175 degrees for 20 seconds. Then, it is cooled back down with ice water, put into frosty cartons and sent to supermarkets and restaurants.

In the same room, all the cream is separated from the milk, and then put back into the milk to make it 1 percent, 2 percent or whole milk. And the milk is enriched with vitamins -- A and D for nonfat, 1 percent and 2 percent; just vitamin D for whole milk.

At full capacity, the plant can process 6,000 gallons of milk per hour.

Shelf life

Scott Kiilsgaard, production manager at Country Classic, defers to others when it comes to opinions about raw milk. But, he says, were it to be legalized, he suspects most of Country Classic's customers still would demand pasteurized milk. Not only do many feel safer drinking milk with all the bugs in it zapped, it also lasts longer than raw milk, which can turn in a few days.

As a testament to that value, a half gallon of milk from Kirkland's Signature -- Costco's in-store brand -- sits in the DeVries' fridge beside the raw goat milk.

One goat isn't enough to meet all their needs, DeVries says.

Still, she can control the nutritional value of the milk from her goats with what she feeds the goats -- orange peels for vitamin C, grass and alfalfa to boost omega-3 fatty acids. And she can watch where it comes from -- something that can't be said for the milk bought at the grocery store.

Public policy should find ways to promote this kind of personal involvement in food, not outlaw it, she says.

"I know that whatever my animals eat is going to make its way to my body," she says. "If they stay healthy, then I'm healthier."

What To Read Next
Get Local