CARLYLE • There is a battle underway in Illinois over who can and cannot sell raw milk.
Smack in the middle of it are Sunshine and Lola, a pair of dairy cows living on a small family farm 50 miles east of St. Louis.
Of course, they aren’t willing participants in the fight. But it’s the fate of the milk taken daily from the two cows — and others around the state — that’s created tension among state health officials and raw food enthusiasts.
For decades, Illinois farmers have been free to sell unpasteurized milk directly to the public. But now, the Illinois Department of Public Health, citing safety concerns, is trying to gain control over those sales through a permit system.
It’s a dispute that pits consumers’ desire to choose what they eat against the government’s need to keep food safe. And it’s one that’s playing out across the nation, as shoppers increasingly turn to raw milk, despite warnings from health officials.
Advocates see moves like the one in Illinois as government resistance against what it views as a dangerous trend.
“Really, what they want to do is make it illegal,” said Lynnette Mooth, who owns the Carlyle farm with her husband, an emergency room physician.
The Mooths came to the area more than a dozen years ago to raise their children in a rural setting. Scattered across their 120-acre McConauchie Manor Farm are goats, hogs, chickens, rabbits, and a mix of fruits and vegetables — all catering to the organic and natural food market.
Lola and Sunshine are part of that mix.
Twice a day, the cows are led into one of the farm’s barns, where they’re hooked to a milking machine. Each cow yields three to seven gallons a day during the seven months a year in which they produce milk.
Much of that milk goes to the Mooth family — they have nine children — and others supporting the farm’s operations.
But there’s always extra. And no shortage of customers eager to buy it for $8 a gallon.
It’s something that doesn’t surprise Mooth.
“I was raised on raw milk,” she said. “Nothing else ever tasted the same.”
Determining the size of the raw milk market is difficult at best, though supporters say it’s been growing in recent years as health-conscious foodies move away from processed foods.
Still, it remains a niche industry, with much of the production handled by small farms such as the one in Carlyle. Surveys done by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that as much as 3 percent of the U.S. population drinks raw milk.
More than 30 states allow raw milk sales, though the particulars are managed through a patchwork of laws and regulations.
Some require you to own at least part of the cow (sort of like a time share) that’s being milked. Some allow the milk to be sold at farmers’ markets or even retail stores. And then there are those, such as Missouri, where farmers are generally limited to direct sales to consumers.
It’s a market in constant flux, with lawmakers across the nation considering a host of bills that would allow sales or relax some of the restrictions faced by dairy farmers. Last summer, Arkansas legislators voted to allow raw cow milk to be sold along with goat milk, which already was legal. And in February, Oregon did away with a rule prohibiting farmers from advertising their raw milk offerings.
But there have been setbacks as well.
Earlier this year, for example, efforts to legalize sales in Louisiana failed after legislation was rejected by state senators. In June, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled against a farmer who argued that the state’s commercial licensing laws didn’t apply to a farmer with a single cow. And there’s been little action on legislation introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by a Kentucky congressman who wants to end a federal prohibition on raw milk sales across state lines.
When such resistance arises, critics point to what they see as a health system that’s hostile toward raw milk.
“The government is trying to convince the world this is deathly scary stuff. But we’re not afraid of it,” said Kimberly Hartke, a spokeswoman for the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports raw milk.
Clearly, the federal government — or at least its health arm — is not a fan of milk that hasn’t been treated with pasteurization, the process of heating milk to kill harmful bacteria. It’s what keeps milk drinkers from coming into contact with nasty things such as salmonella and E. coli, health officials say.
They’ll often point to a 2012 CDC study that said unpasteurized products are 150 times more likely to cause illness than pasteurized versions.
The 13-year review looked at dairy outbreaks across the nation from 1993 to 2006 and found that states with legal raw milk sales suffered considerably more illness than those without them. The study blamed 60 percent of the outbreaks, and 200 of the 239 hospitalizations, on raw milk.
Advocates, however, argue that these outbreaks are relatively rare.
In Illinois, there have been only 20 illnesses — and no deaths — related to two outbreaks since 1998, said Wes King, executive director of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, a group that supports local food producers.
“There are risks involved. You can get sick from raw milk,” King said. “But that’s with any food. You can never eliminate risk, altogether.”
But balancing those risks is the challenge faced by regulators, lawmakers, consumers and the entire dairy industry.
“There is no doubt that raw milk can carry pathogens. And those pathogens can make you sick,” said Lloyd Metzger, an associate professor in the Dairy Science Department at South Dakota State University and a member of the Midwest Dairy Association’s science advisory council. “At the same time, this is America, and we have freedom of choice.”
He said the larger industry does have concerns over what would happen to sales in the event of a raw milk-related outbreak resulting in significant illness or casualties: “Would consumers understand that pasteurized milk is safe?”
Illinois regulators want to implement a permitting system requiring raw milk producers to meet a range of testing and inspection requirements.
Among them, farmers would have to keep a log of all transactions over a 12-month period and post warnings about the dangers of unpasteurized milk. A farmer without a permit would be able to give raw milk only to family members living on the farm.
According to the state Department of Public Health, raw milk sales aren’t actually legal, anyway. And they haven’t been since at least 1983.
That’s when the state adopted its Grade A Pasteurized Milk and Milk Products Act, which allows raw milk sales only if there are rules specifically governing those sales, spokeswoman Melaney Arnold, said in an email.
So, technically speaking, the practice has been illegal for some three decades. But there’s been no attempt to halt the sales, she said, because there also aren’t any rules giving the health department the authority to stop them.
“The main idea behind the proposed rules is to allow for the legal sale of raw milk in a way that is as sanitary and safe for human consumption as is possible with nonpasteurized milk,” Arnold said.
The public comment period for the proposal ends Monday, but it’s already been one of the hotter topics addressed by the health department in recent years, with more than 700 comments collected, Arnold said.
Before the rule goes into effect, it still must be approved by the bipartisan legislative Joint Committee on Administrative Rules.
If that happens — without any major changes — raw milk supporters fear it will force small providers out of the business. Some critics say it could cost as much as $25,000 to comply.
That could be devastating for some of these operations, said Pete Kennedy, president of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund.
“Most of these are small operations, with five cows, 10 cows or less,” Kennedy said.