Raw Milk: Perfect Food or Public Health Threat?

November 16th, 2012

Rapid City Journal
By Mary Garrigan

Image courtesy of Stefan Kühn

Josh Simpson pours raw milk from Black Hills Milk on his cereal every morning and drinks a tall glass of it before he goes to bed each night.

The 11-year old Rapid City boy loves the milk’s fresh, creamy taste and his mom, Val, loves that it is a nutrient-dense, locally produced food that hasn’t undergone commercial processing.

South Dakota’s Department of Agriculture dairy administrator Darwin Kurtenbach knows there’s a growing consumer demand for raw, or unpasteurized, milk. Kurtenbach, who recently ordered the shutdown of Black Hills Milk, a Belle Fourche-area dairy, for one week when a pathogen was found in a sample of its milk, refuses to debate the nutritional profile of raw milk. But you couldn’t get him to drink the stuff.

“No. No way. There’s a lot of dangers. I would probably drink gasoline before I’d drink raw milk,” Kurtenbach said recently.

Love it or hate it, people are passionate about raw milk.

Commercially sold milk has been pasteurized — heated to 161 degrees for 15 seconds — in order to destroy a variety of pathogenic bacteria such as e.coli, listeria, salmonella and campylobacter — which, if present, can contaminate milk and sicken, or even kill, people.

Raw milk advocates believe the risk of bacterial contamination is very low given today’s modern, well-managed dairies and that pasteurization destroys much of the beneficial bacteria, enzymes and micro nutrients found in raw milk. And they have plenty of personal testimonies to support their beliefs.

Others simply prefer the taste and freshness of locally produced milk over the longer shelf life and additives in commercial milk.

“I like raw milk because it tastes creamy and good. Plus, it’s better for you because all the good stuff in it hasn’t been killed off,” says Josh Simpson.

Vitamin A, a fat-soluble vitamin, is removed from commercial milk along with milkfat, in 0 percent, 1 percent and 2 percent milkfat. Supplemental Vitamin A is added, but neither pasteurization nor homogenization destroys Vitamin A, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Vitamin D is added to pasteurized milk as public health policy, much as it is to other foods.

Raw milk has garnered increasing interest and attention nationwide in the last 10 years or so, as a small, but growing, segment of nutrition-conscious Americans choose it over commercially produced and pasteurized milk for taste and health reasons. The Simpsons have been drinking raw milk for three years now without any negative results.

“After learning the number of weeks it takes before pasteurized milk makes it to the shelves of the stores, we like the freshness and flavor of the raw milk, which we believe is indicative of its quality. The kids think store-bought milk tastes funny now,” Val Simpson said. “We also like supporting small, local farms, so we are dismayed to hear the recent testing issues with Black Hill Milk.”

Simpson added her voice to a chorus of loyal customers who support Black Hills Milk owners John and Dawn Habek. The Habeks were ordered on Oct. 16 to stop selling their milk after campylobacter bacteria was detected in a laboratory test sample. There were no reports of illness traced to Black Hills Milk.

The Habecks resumed milk sales on Oct. 22, after subsequent test samples passed inspection. Licensed dairies in South Dakota must submit monthly samples for testing. The Habecks sell about 85 gallons of milk per day, which is consumed by an estimated 2,000 area customers. The milk is available at a storefront in Spearfish and at the Farmer’s Market in Rapid City.

The state’s shutdown of their raw milk source angered many of its customers, including Sandy Seregin of Spearfish.

“I was so angry when I stopped by Black Hills Milk in Spearfish to buy some milk, like I do twice a week, and was unable to bring home an essential food item,” Seregin said.

Seregin suffers from heartburn and other symptoms if she drinks milk from a grocery store, but is able to drink raw milk without any problem.

“I have been drinking their milk and cheese almost daily and feel much better than when I consume any other products,” she said.

So does Karie Kinney of Spearfish.

“I have been battling health issues for a couple years now and raw milk has changed my life. I make homemade kefir with it and my whole (family of 6) has never been healthier,” Kinney said.

Since 2010, it has been legal for permitted dairies in the state to sell raw milk direct to consumers. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 18 states prohibit the sale of raw mik entirely and the others allow either direct sales from farms to consumers or various types of off-farm sales. Out of about 330 dairy farms in South Dakota, at least three of them currently sell raw milk, but it is impossible to know exactly how many do so, Kurtenbach said. Dairies near Brookings and Marion also sell raw milk.

State lawmakers were reacting to raw milk advocates like Micki Kennison and Bodie Kent.

“I am so grateful that our state allows the people to make their own choice regarding raw milk,” said Kennison, who believes that pasteurized and homogenized milk damages health over time because the body does not recognize its molecular structure as it does unpasteurized milk. She also knows that pasteurization is not an absolute guarantee of untainted milk. There have been outbreaks of various food poisonings traced to pasteurized milk and milk products.

Kent said raw milk is “quite possibly the oldest, most perfect, and most powerful food that mammals have ever consumed.” He believes the Habecks are victims in a government “war” against raw milk.

As a government regulator, Kurtenbach said his job is to enforce the rules and legislation of the state.

“I’m not going to get into a debate over the pros and cons of raw milk,” he said. “The law states that if there is pathogenic bacteria present, we have to issue a stop production order.”

The Habecks have questioned whether the laboratory’s timeline let the sample sit too long before testing and their questions about what particular strain of campylobacter was found in their milk have gone unanswered.

Kurtenbach defends the sampling and testing process as fair and accurate.

“The samples are collected by a licensed sampler (and) shipped to a certified lab. I have no reasons to think they were compromised in any way,” Kurtenbach said.

Kent was one of the Black Hills Milk’s first customers and, like many of their customers, praises their milking practices as impeccable. Kurtenbach said the belief that raw milk from well-cared for animals bottled in a clean facility guarantees bacteria-free milk is mistaken.

“That is wrong. The potential is always there,” he said of contamination.”It’s not as great in a clean facility, but it’s still there, because we’re dealing with a raw product. Pathogenic bacteria will always be present.”

Contact Mary Garrigan at 394-8424 or mary.garrigan@rapidcityjournal.com

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