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Photo: Julie Raw/Indiana Public Media News
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Photo: Gretchen Frazee/Indiana Public Media News
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Photo: Gretchen Frazee/Indiana Public Media News
A small though growing community of people in Indiana drink unpasteurized or raw milk even though it is illegal to buy it. The state is recognizing the increasing popularity and is responding with legislation that would label this type of milk as ‘not for human consumption.’
Sharing A Cow And Its Milk
In the parking lot of the grocery coop Bloomingfoods in Bloomington, dairy farmer Luke Rhodes unloads coolers of milk bottles, eggs, and frozen pork roasts.
People trickle in throughout the morning to meet Rhodes at the truck – most of them to pick up bottles of raw milk. It’s illegal to sell unpasteurized milk in Indiana and most other states. But Rhodes isn’t selling it, he’s distributing it. The customers here all participate in Rhodes’ “cow share program.”
“We had requests of people who wanted to get raw milk off the farm, which we knew was illegal,” he says. “So we pursued what we could do with it, and we found out the cow share program is legal. We started out with that about six years ago with one cow share holder. We’re presently up to about a 150.”
Think of the cow share program this way. Customers come to Rhodes looking to get raw milk. They purchase a share or two of one of his Dutch Golden Dairy cows for $50 a piece and then fill out some paperwork showing they jointly own the cow with other shareholders. Owning part of the cow gives customers the right to drink its milk, and no money changes hands when Rhodes distributes the milk to the shareholders.
One cow share gets customers about a gallon of milk per week. Shareholder Joni McGary says people should be able to eat and drink what they want without government intervention.
“Our son drinks it. We believe it helps him with his allergies. It makes a great yogurt,” she says. “It’s great stuff.”
Rhodes says he has been drinking raw milk his whole life because he grew up on a farm. He distributes his milk weekly in Bloomington and Indianapolis and says he is surprised at the great lengths so many people are willing to go to get it.
“People do go quite a distance to get raw milk,” Rhodes says. “I’ve heard of people driving as far as an hour, hour and a half. And some families group together and take turns and go.”
The Health Benefits And Risks Of Raw Milk
It is that trend which has some health officials worried. The Food and Drug Administration warns against the dangers of drinking raw milk, and as a result, most state legislators are hesitant to legalize its sale, even in small quantities.
State Senator Jean Leising opposed a bill earlier this month that would have legalized on-farm raw milk sales. Leising says before raw milk is sold in Indiana, the state will need to establish better regulations.
“Having been an old nurse by profession, I’m very concerned about the scientific side of the issue,” she says. “This amendment wouldn’t have required anything, it would have just legalized the sale of raw milk, and I really felt that was an accident waiting to happen.”
Each state has its own special legislation dealing with the sale of unpasteurized milk, and just as raw milk advocates go to great lengths to obtain their dairy, regulators try hard to stop them. Some states have measures that are both strict and inventive.
Take for example, the state of North Carolina, which used to require its producers to color their milk gray to make it unappetizing for consumption. Other states, like Wisconsin, have gone the opposite direction and totally legalized direct on-farm raw milk sales. And when it comes to the debate over whether raw milk is healthy or harmful, there is minimal scientific research to support either side.
Andrea Wiley is an Indiana University Professor of Anthropology who researches human milk consumption. She says renewed interest in the living components of food has brought many people to raw milk, for everything from fighting allergies to improving their immune systems. She says the debate boils down to bacteria.
“Not all the bacteria that are in milk are by definition good,” Wiley says. “Certainly the conditions under which cows are raised, the ways they are treated, the ways they are milked, can also introduce other kinds of bacteria that are pathogenic. So I think we shouldn’t assume that all of the milk coming out of the cow is by definition full of very beneficial bacteria.”
The Legislative Debate
If the bill currently in the Indiana House passes, bottles of raw milk would be labeled “not for human consumption.” The idea is that would serve as another deterrent to consumers who are enticed by the product. Another component of the bill would commission a study from the state Board of Animal Health to assess whether Indiana should legalize raw milk sales.
Cow share farmer Luke Rhodes he doubts that legislation would prevent people from finding ways to drink raw milk.
“I think the people that want the raw milk out here will pursue it and get it regardless.”
If the state does ever decide to legalize it, Rhodes says he would be happy to see his cow share program and the associated legal paperwork disappear.