Got Milk? You're Under Arrest

By Alan Scholl
Mar. 18, 2007

In many states, you can possess it, but the law prohibits its sale. It is a violation of federal law to transport the substance across state lines with the intent to sell it. In many states, undercover investigators are at work trying to uncover the furtive networks that produce and distribute the stuff. Dealers have been pulled over and spectacular quantities of the contraband substance have been seized by triumphant investigators. Is this a tale from the War on Drugs?

Not exactly. But it is a tale from the war many states are conducting on those who sell raw milk.

That's right, there is a dangerous underground of dairy devotees who prefer to drink their milk straight from the cow, sans pasteurization and homogenization and government is increasingly out to stop them. Some states, in fact, equate the sale of raw milk with the sale of drugs. Consider this from Washington Post reporter Thomas Bartlett:

The issue of selling raw milk is, legally speaking, dicey. To determine exactly how dicey, I call Ted Elkin, deputy director of the Office of Food Protection and Consumer Health Services at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Elkin is in charge of making sure the state's dairy laws are enforced.

"So," I begin carefully, "Maryland's position on raw milk is . . .?"

"Raw milk is illegal for sale," Elkin says. "Period."

"Huh," I reply.

To help drive this point home, he compares selling raw milk to selling pot.

"Interesting," I say. At that moment, I am standing in my kitchen with the fridge door open, staring at my gallon of possible contraband.

This seems positively surreal, like some parody of the war on drugs aired on Saturday Night Live.

Proof that the war on contraband milk is taken all too seriously by some state officials, Bartlett's conversation with Elkin next turned frighteningly serious. Noting that Maryland lacks the resources to track down all users of raw milk, Elkin suggested that the state might eventually catch them. "Using an analogy, Elkin explains that a small-time heroin dealer in Baltimore might be able to elude the authorities for quite a while," Bartlett wrote of his interview with Elkin. "So, during our conversation, raw milk was compared to marijuana and heroin. What's more, Hitler's secret police were mentioned in passing, sure, but still."

Just like the War on Drugs, the War on Raw Milk is serious business. Just ask farmer Richard Hebron. According to Time magazine, in October of last year the Michigan man was pulled over by police near Ann Arbor. According to Time, when police pulled him over, they "ordered him to put his hands on the hood of his mud-splattered truck and seized its contents: 453 gal. of milk." Hebron had already been the subject of a large sting operation conducted by state Ag officials.

As Time reported, "An undercover agricultural investigator had infiltrated the co-op as part of a sting operation that resulted in the seizure of $7,000 worth of fresh-food items, including 35 lbs. of raw butter, 29 qt. of cream and all those gallons of the suspicious white liquid. Although Hebron's home office was searched and his computer seized, no charges have been filed. 'When they tested the milk, they couldn't find any problems with it,' says Hebron. 'It seems like they're just looking for some way to shut us down.'" Similar sting operations have been conducted in other states, including in Wisconsin, America's erstwhile "Dairy State," where one might expect officials to have a slightly more generous attitude toward the state's beleaguered dairy farmers.

Why the fuss over raw milk? Before the advent of pasteurization, raw milk was widely consumed and was implicated in disease outbreaks in during the 19th century that caused many deaths in American cities. But that milk, according to some, was often contaminated in ways that would be inconceivable today.

"Milk was commonly mixed with additives to gain profit," wrote author Laurie Winn Carlson in her book Cattle, a history of the cow. "Then, to make it look whole, additives were mixed in, such as carbonized carrots, grilled onions, caramel, marigold petals, chalk, plaster, white clay and starch. To replace the cream that had been removed, emulsions of almonds and animal brains were dissolved in the liquid to thicken it."

Today, raw milk supporters say, the product is safe. In California where the sale of raw milk is legal, Organic Pastures Dairy says it has sold more than 40 million servings of raw milk without complaint. Moreover, raw milk advocates say the product is part of a healthy diet. Pasteurization, they say, destroys important enzymes and beneficial bacteria that exist in milk. Drink raw milk, they say, and your arthritis pain will cease, your asthma will go away and you'll lose weight. Give it to young children and they will be less likely to get sick and suffer from allergies.

Are all such claims true? Who knows. But one thing is true: Selling raw milk should not be illegal.

"There are 65,000 child-porn websites," Nancy Sanders, a raw milk supporter, mother and pediatric nurse told Time. "Why doesn't the government go after those?"

With dangerous criminals like dairy farmer Richard Hebron on the loose peddling such dangerous stuff, those state governments don't have time.

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