The Wyoming Department of Agriculture recently proposed new food safety rules. One of the most contentious adjustments has to do with raw milk – that’s milk that is not pasteurized. It’s already illegal to sell raw milk in the state, but if passed, the new rules would make it illegal to obtain it unless you own your own dairy cow. This has some milk drinkers very upset. Wyoming Public Radio’s Irina Zhorov reports.
Irina Zhorov: Frank Wallis hosts a herd of twelve milk cows on his ranch in Recluse, Wyoming.
He drives through the pastures full of pines and sage brush to look for them…when he finds them, they are standing amidst small hills striped rust and canary yellow…
[ambi: getting out of the car, door slams, walking on grass]
Frank Wallis: So here's a few more of the cows. So we've got three brown Swiss cows here [cow moos]. Another Jersey cow here.
Zhorov: Wallis doesn’t own the cows, he just takes care of them. They belong communally to about 70 families who have bought into cow shares to obtain unpasteurized, unprocessed raw milk from them.
Wallis: The people that want to own a milk cow but can't for whatever reason they buy into the cow share, in my case it costs them $50, that's the property, they get a bill of sale, like a motorcycle…
Zhorov: Then each shareholder pays $35 a month for Wallis to care for the cows, to milk them, and cover any veterinary bills. Each family gets about a gallon of raw milk a week out of this arrangement.
It’s a bit more complicated and expensive than going to the local grocery store for a gallon of milk, but that’s because sale of raw milk is illegal in Wyoming.
According to Dean Finkenbinder, manager at Consumer Health Services with the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, the cow shares are also illegal…but not much is done about it.
Finkenbinder: We, probably a while ago, sent out letters to people that we knew or that we had seen were advertising animal shares and told them that it was illegal.
Zhorov: It hasn’t been enforced much beyond the letters – of which Wallis has a small file – but a newly proposed food safety rule would potentially change that.
The rule is being updated to align with the 2009 Food and Drug Administration food code, and according to the Department of Agriculture, would make it “so producers who are the sole owners of animals can serve raw milk in their home to family members, non-paying guests and employees of the farm or ranch.” The word ‘sole’ is what has Wallis’ cow share owners worried.
For some, Like Nicholas DeLaat, a cow share owner, the concern stems from an almost religious dedication to raw milk and its health benefits.
DeLaat: Health is definitely the reason for my children, I want the healthiest I can provide for them, and I believe that buying a cow share, knowing the cow that I’m buying it from, knowing the producer of that cow, is probably the best way that I can control the health and viability of my children.
Zhorov: Amongst raw milk drinkers, like DeLaat, there’s the belief that unprocessed milk is more nutritious, full of more good bacteria and fat, and tastier.
DeLaat: After we put my kids on raw milk about a year ago, we ran out of milk and I bought whole milk out of the store. And I give some to my daughter, my 4-year-old, and she look sat it and she gets the really weird look on her face, and she goes, ‘Dad, this tastes like water.’ The taste is different and the nutrients are probably going out with that taste.
Zhorov: Wallis’ ranch also touts a healthy diet for the cows, he does not use antibiotics or hormones on the animals, and he runs a small business, which helps local economies. Wallis works with cow share owners who attribute previously sick children’s recoveries to raw milk, and cancer patients gaining their weight back who say raw milk is responsible.
F-D-A spokesperson, Curtis Allen, says these claims are scientifically unfounded.
Allen: As a scientific based organization, FDA has to follow the science. While the nutritional and health benefits have not been scientifically substantiated, the health risks are clear. Not only that, the science shows no meaningful difference in nutrition content.
Zhorov: And the whole reason why raw milk is not easily accessible, is because it is associated with disease. Wyoming had 3 outbreaks, resulting in 18 illnesses, from 2003 to 2008 that were attributed to raw milk consumption. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control showed that the risk of developing disease from unpasteurized milk is 150 times greater than from pasteurized dairy.
For CDC’s researchers, those statistics outweigh any benefits.
But drinking raw milk can be a political act, in addition to a health decision.
Here’s Frank Wallis again, who runs a cow share in Campbell County.
Wallis: When I started doing this I did it as a kind of little pushback against the state, and I’m wagging my fingers quote on quote.
Zhorov: So there’s the question of whether raw milk is actually good for you, but more important, says Anugraha Norstegaard, another cow share owner, is the question of who gets to decide that.
Norstegaard: We can do all kind of dangerous things, we can smoke all the cigarettes we want, we can drink all the alcohol we want, but we can’t drink raw milk…
Food is our most basic. If you control food, you control people. It’s the quickest way to control someone, to control their food supply.
Zhorov: For Wallis, it boils down to this:
Wallis: Who chooses? The government? Or the parent?
Zhorov: There will be a public hearing on August 22nd in Cheyenne regarding the proposed changes to the rules. Wallis isn’t sure yet what he’ll do if the word ‘sole’ stays in the rules, but he doesn’t think he’ll stop making raw milk.
Wallis: I guess we never really learn from history. Back in the ‘20s and ‘30s they said no more alcohol in the United States. Well that spawned a huge industry called bootleggers. So, instead of moonshine, I guess I’ll be a moooooo-shiner…I don’t know.
Zhorov: For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Irina Zhorov.