Michael Foley: The Great Raw Milk Brouhaha — Four Easy Pieces


The FDA is on a campaign to ban raw milk sales. The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) has made it increasingly difficult for people to sell raw milk in the state and recently issued “cease and desist” orders to small, private dairy shares across the state, including one here in Mendocino County (public disclosure: the one my wife, Sara Grusky and I have been supplying).

A task force of agencies, including FDA and CDFA, fronted by a SWAT team from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, recently raided the Rawsome food buying club in Venice, California, seizing produce, destroying milk stocks, confiscating cash, and arresting the owners. The charges? Processing and sale of unpasteurized milk to club members, plus storing unwashed eggs at room temperature. Heavy stuff.  Meanwhile, federal regulators were walking executives of Cargill, the grain and meat giant, through a “cost-benefit analysis” to see if it was worth while recalling ground turkey after more than 100 people were sickened and one Californian died of salmonella poisoning. (In the end, Cargill voluntarily recalled 36 million pounds of their product. No charges have been filed.) No one has reported illnesses at Rawsome or among the dairy shares targeted.

So what’s a reasonable person to think? The FDA’s food czar, Michael Taylor (poster boy for the revolving door between American’s most hated corporation, Monsanto, and America’s most hated public institution) recently defended his agency’s preoccupation with tiny dairy share operations as a vital part of protecting public health. Those of us who would like our milk fresh, whole and uncooked, defend dairy shares as private arrangements not subject the sorts of regulations that have accrued to keep us safe from the likes of Cargill.

Here are four easy pieces that might help you think through the fog of the dairy wars.

Isn’t Raw Milk Dangerous?

Public health officials, nearly in unison, argue that raw milk is dangerous. OK. Let’s consider that. But remember, this is the stuff humans have been drinking for roughly 10,000 years. We made it well into the twentieth century without pasteurization, but now we gotta have it, or we’ll die. So the public health folks say.

I want to be frank. Raw milk is risky. So is life. Crossing the street is risky. And eating is certainly risky. Every year there are an estimated 48,000,000 (yes, that’s million) cases of food borne illnesses in the United States. Actually reported food borne illnesses in 2010 were 90,771. Still a lot. According to government statistics, on average 41.83 of these could be attributed to drinking raw milk, though “confirmed” cases amounted to only 18.17 per year. So how risky does that make raw milk?

Here’s one way of doing the numbers. There are an estimated 9,384,000 admitted raw milk drinkers in the United States, according to a large recent telephone survey. Extrapolating from the data on food borne illnesses, it can be estimated that they suffered 2,759 cases of food borne illnesses, from all foods. So even for confirmed raw milk drinkers, the percentage of sickness from drinking raw milk was just 0.015 % (41.83 as a percentage of 2,759). That’s not a lot. And that assumes that 1) those “attributed illnesses” really came from raw milk, 2) they came, not from drinking raw milk from the bulk tanks of conventional dairy farmers (as in a recent Wisconsin case) but from dairies that produce raw milk for consumption on purpose, and 3) they only hit committed raw milk drinkers (again, not the case in Wisconsin).

All other foods combined, by contrast, account for almost 100 % of food borne illnesses. In fact, you are 66 times more likely to become sick from all other foods combined than from drinking raw milk, or 152 times more likely if we stick to “confirmed” cases of illness caused by drinking raw milk. (Ted Beals, MD collected the data from a government publication called Healthy People 2020, Center for Disease Control, and other government sources. Beals, however, compares cases of illness attributed to raw milk to estimated cases of food borne illness from all sources, arriving at the claim that you are 34,000 and 52,000 times more likely to become ill from all other sources than from raw milk. The correct comparison, reflected here, is between reported cases of food borne illness and those attributed to raw milk.)

Another way of putting it is that we can expect less than half a person (0.45) per 100,000 to get sick from raw milk annually. By contrast, among light smokers, the rate of death from all smoking-related diseases for 35 to 44 year olds, per 100,000, is 87; and the rate goes up rapidly as you age. In case you were wondering, the odds of dying in an auto accident are 1 in 20,000, or 5 in 100,000.

So, go ahead. Drive to the store. Eat your peanut butter. Eat your salad mix. Eat your spinach. Eat your ground turkey from Cargill. Your government is protecting you. Sorta.

But don’t worry over much about the raw milk. If you do worry, of course, and you’re a member of a dairy share, consider insisting as part of your contract that your farmers regularly test for the major diseases. They’ll do it, provided they can find a lab that will serve a tiny operation and doesn’t charge an arm and a leg to do so. Should it make you feel better? That’s a matter for personal judgment. But given the statistics I just quoted, I wouldn’t lose much sleep over the safety of raw milk. The real safety measure? Know your farmer.

But doesn’t the state have a duty to protect the public?

Yes, of course. But are these dairy shares and food clubs public or private? When does a transaction become public? And do adults have a right to decide for themselves what they want to eat or not?

The shareholders and members of buying clubs are, well, shareholders and members. They own part of the herd or part of the club. And as owners they claim a right to the milk and other products provided. That’s because they have a right, after all, to hire someone else to care for the herd, breed the herd, deliver the kids, and milk the mamas. Don’t they? They’re not part of an anonymous “public” needing protection from distant and anonymous vendors of animal products like Cargill. They’re owners, contracting with someone to care for their cows or goats and deliver their product. Pretty simple.

Look at it this way. You own a herd of goats but for some reason can no longer devote time to caring for them — say, you need to make some money for a change. So you hire someone to come and care for the goats and milk them for you. Would that person be “distributing milk to the public” and guilty of violating various regulations if your facilities weren’t licensed? Of course not.

Now, what if you had to move to town, say, to care for your aging mother. You still get your milk the same way, but now you’re drinking it “off the property”. (CDFA claims that dairy shares would be legal as long as the milk does not leave the property!) Does that change the legal situation? Of course not. It’s still your milk. You’re just contracting with someone to care for your goats and provide the milk.

And say you and a friend buy goats together, with the intention of starting a dairy, but you just can’t come up with the quarter of a million dollars it will cost to be licensed (some recession or other, and the banks won’t lend). So you entrust the care and milking of the goats to your friend, you pay a portion for their upkeep as you had agreed in the first place, and you get the milk. Does that change things substantially? No, of course not. These are your goats, even if they’re boarded and cared for on someone else’s property. You’re still part owner and entitled to a reasonable portion of the goods they represent, including the milk.

That’s what a dairy share is. Shareholders own part or all of the herd. They pay someone else to board and care for them, and part of the deal is that this someone else milks the goats and provides milk products to the owners. Illegal? No, of course not. Only a CDFA lawyer could think it was. A “public sale” of milk subject to regulation by the state? No, it’s still just owners collecting on what they are entitled to.

If we have a right to grow and raise our own food, and we do, then we have a right to hire help to do so. We even have a right to board our animals somewhere else and hire someone else to do all the work.Pretty simple, don’t you think?

Why not just comply?

OK, so even if a dairy share is just a private transaction between a farmer and the shareholders/owners of the herd, why not just comply with the relevant regulations? Surely, they’re just common sense measures to protect all parties involved?

Well, no, they’re not. Not unless it is common sense to think that it is easier to wash a milking machine than your hands (the regs require use of a milking machine). Not unless you think spending, say, a quarter of a million dollars on facilities for milking a cow or two or a handful of goats is common sense. Regular testing and periodic inspections is what may come to mind when the authorities talk about complying. But the main obstacles to compliance for small fry like most dairy shares are not the regular testing and inspections required under the law. The main obstacles are those facilities.

What does the law currently require? (“Currently” is important. These laws have developed over decades. Sixty years ago there was little concrete and stainless steel involved. People like my Great Aunt Anna could even legally milk her solitary cow and sell butter and cream in town without much to-do. And, you know what? The health problems the regulations are supposed to address had largely been addressed by the 1920’s, mainly by shutting down the big, unsanitary urban dairies that were common at the turn of the last century.)

According to California State regulations, to be licensed you must have a separate milking room, used exclusively for that purpose. Floors must be concrete, stanchions can’t be wooden, walls must be coated with something “impermeable,” windows and exterior doors must be screened. You must use a milking machine, and it must be cleaned after each use. How? Chemicals are the preferred method in the industry, but very hot water is acceptable. Generally, the machine must be partially dismantled to do the whole job right.

Milk must be sent immediately to a separate cooling room,where it is chilled to reach the proper storage temperature within 45 minutes. This is usually done in a large, stainless steel vat. The cooling room must be constructed to the same standards as the milking room. The vat must be cleaned regularly.

If you intend to bottle milk or process it, say, into cheese, you need the dairy equivalent of a commercial kitchen. More stainless steel (especially for that pasteurization tank), more cement, special plumbing, separate hand washing and dish washing sinks, and all the rest. That could cost a quarter of a million all by itself.

Oh, and there’s the bathroom. There must be a bathroom (for the inspector), with outside access only. Flush toilets, of course. That’s right. The dairy animals can spend their whole lives wallowing in their own excrement, and many do; that doesn’t worry the crafters of the code. But the inspector must have a proper bathroom. It probably needs to be handicapped accessible, but I haven’t found explicit language to that effect. In fact, many of the requirements are scattered over multiple sections of the code. Though the Secretary of Agriculture was required by law to provide model building plans for licensed dairies, I couldn’t find any such document, nor any official estimates of the costs of such facilities.

That’s just the physical infrastructure required for licensing. The rest, the testing but especially the inspections, can be up to the inspector. Get a good one, and it’s easy. Get one who, say, hates the drive to your little tiny place way out where, and he or she can make your life miserable. Even shut you down. Unlike, say, Cargill. No, most people can’t “just comply.” That’s why most of our dairy farms have shut down over the last fifty years.

Bottom Line:  We Need Local Dairy

Mendocino County is not going to attract major industry, experience another real estate boom, or live off tourist revenues for the foreseeable future. Our two chief agricultural products, wine and marijuana, are in the doldrums. The larger economy is not recovering and probably won’t. We need to continue to build a local economy, and the heart of a local economy is local food.

Where’s the dairy? There is one licensed dairy in the county, as far as I know, and it sells high-end goat cheese. Otherwise, we import our milk – or quietly get it fresh from friends and neighbors. Trouble is, the California Department of Food and Agriculture thinks all that local exchange is illegal. Karen Ross, Secretary of Agriculture, recently penned an editorial in the Sacramento Bee asserting her department’s commitment to helping support local food but insisting that she had an obligation to protect “public safety.” No, not from Cargill but from Mom and Pop local dairy producers. The department, she said, would do everything it could to help these folks get licensed.

There was no offer of financing in her letter, because there will be no financing. Nor do most local dairy producers want to go into hock for the upwards of a quarter million dollars it would cost to “go legal”. There are few in this county willing to take the risks that model of dairy entails. Eighty percent of dairies nationwide have gone under in the last ten years. Federal policies – from promoting bovine growth hormone to supporting an open import market to elaborate “safety” requirements – have contributed to the holocaust of small dairy farming. Who in her right mind would go into debt big time under these conditions?

What policy makers don’t understand – and many professional folks sincerely committed to a local food economy are as ignorant – is that local food production does not entail launching a lot of successful, middle-income farms. Not in Mendocino County and likely not in most parts of the country. People go into farming knowing that it will be a small part of their income, one of probably several income streams that they balance to keep them afloat. Sure, everyone hopes that “one day”, they’ll be able to live off farming, if that’s what they love doing.  But for most people, it’s not likely to happen.

Local dairy is one of those little streams, part of a subsistence strategy for most people, not really a business strategy. They produce for themselves and cover expenses, but scarcely a wage, with surreptitious sales or a more open dairy share. That’s how it has been for years in rural America. And that’s how it will have to be if we are to have a local food economy that really amounts to something.

That’s also how it should be. Local dairy, backyard dairy, should be as ubiquitous as backyard chickens. And it should be as easy to sell a little milk or butter or cheese as it is to sell eggs. Are there risks? Of course, but they are small – undoubtedly smaller than consuming store-bought eggs, which have a thirty percent chance of carrying salmonella, according to recent studies. The benefits are immense. Not just that little income stream but the fresh, health-giving dairy products that people who taste them wonder how they did without when they shopped at the supers. And that little bit of money stays home, in our communities, where it belongs. So do the folks who would love to just keep on farming, raising animals, and sharing food with their neighbors.

We need local dairy. The California Department of Food and Agriculture isn’t going to help us get it. We have to build it ourselves, one dairy share at a time. And to do so, we’ll need support from our county government, to see to it that state officials back off and let us grow the economy we need. Above all, we need a local food policy that really does promote local food production and that makes county agencies sympathetic players in that effort.


Michael, you have written an excellent description of the situation. From here, it is only a small step toward the FDA raiding small farmer’s market gardeners, even if it is a CSA.
Beginning when I was twelve or a little younger, I was regularly hand milking a half dozen or so cows in a barn in which there was no running water. I didn’t wash my hands before milking. Yet, my dad had done this before me, my grandfather before him, and ancestors trailing back more than three hundred years on this continent and long before back in the old countries. Their families always drank that milk, as did I until I left home.
There’s a funny thing about living close to the earth. One is exposed to so many varieties of “germs”. It appears that by doing so, one builds up powerful immunity. Have you ever eaten carrots fresh out of the ground picked with a dirty hand?. They are quite wonderful.
The problem is that our society is sick maybe to death and the government is trying to patch every hole as it appears with their proverbial fingers, but it is so afraid of stepping on important toes (to mix a metaphor or two). The little people are easy pickings. Witness the inhabitants of our local jail and prisons. Where are our pitchforks?
Michael, your goat milk is truly wonderful! Thanks.

My reference to dirty hands may have put you off. I didn’t mean filthy hands, but hands that had opened gates and barn doors, had tied cows into their stalls, had given them grain, and had moved the milk stool from cow to cow. Perhaps earlier they had thrown hay down from the haymow, fed other animals, and been involved in other chores. Water and soap were many yards away, through several gates and doors, so undoubtedly many, many types of bacteria could likely be found on these hands as they were milking the cows, whose udders were unwashed as well. Why is it we all didn’t die young? In fact, most of the ancestors that I’ve traced far back had long lives, long before there was all this concern with killing all bacteria and being super sanitary. What is it that government is so intent to protect us from? It seems our selves. By living ultra-clean lives, our immune systems never have a chance to adapt to the real world, so we need to be constantly saved from it. It seems there is a vicious circle here. Of course, I don’t mean that there aren’t some deadly “germs” out there, but a healthy immune system is a stout defense. My advice: don’t protect your children from dirt – well, maybe from city dirt with all its weird chemicals.

The public health regulator’s jurisdiction comes in when raw milk is sold in a public market. A public market means the milk is put up for sale, and members of the public buy it in a market. Milk is exchanged for payment in cash or kind. In a herdshare milk is never sold, so there is no commerce; no market. The state health regulators have no jurisdiction. The only jurisdiction in a herdshare is that the legal system protects both parties of the private contract against fraud. That’s it. And secondly, local zoning laws can regulate the herd operation, ubt only in a very limitedmanner, like requiring a minimum lot size for agriculture, some buffers and other best management practices to protect the watershed, and some animal laws to prevent cruelty and proper number of animals per acre.

“What is it that government is so intent to protect us from?”

I believe a better understanding comes if we substitute “to control” as the operative principle. The current dominant paradigm can no longer tolerate too much individual freedom or autonomy.

Meanwhile, I reserve the right to lick my own dirty fingers if I feel like it.