Policy Documents

Research & Commentary: Raw Milk Legalization

September 30, 2013

Local laws against the consumption of raw milk (unpasteurized and un-homogenized) were first created in the 1920s as a response to supposed health threats posed by the product. From 1973 to 1987, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) initiated and expanded regulations against the interstate sale of raw milk. Today the sale of raw milk for human consumption is illegal in 12 states, legal in permitted retail stores in nine states, and restricted to some degree in the rest. Raw milk is legally produced and sold throughout almost all of Europe, though many countries have special sanitary requirements.

The prohibition on raw milk gained notoriety after more than a dozen raids launched by FDA officials against dairy farms that sell raw milk. A 2011 documentary, Farmageddon, raised public awareness of the subject. In 2012 the largest raw milk producer in the United States sued the FDA for the right to sell raw milk across state lines. Meanwhile, activist groups in rural areas have been fighting to legalize raw milk in specific localities.

Opponents of raw milk legalization argue the product is unsanitary and unhealthy. Pasteurization was developed in the late 1800s in accordance with early germ theory in response to the spread of diseases in heavily populated urban areas. The process destroys the bacteria (such as E. coli) naturally produced in animal milk. According to the FDA’s Web site, between 1993 and 2006 more than 1,500 Americans became sick from drinking raw milk.

Proponents of legalization dispute the FDA’s health claims about raw milk. The Weston A. Price Foundation’s studies indicate that although raw milk consumption does pose some risks, its adverse health impacts have been greatly exaggerated. Raw milk is more nutritious than pasteurized milk because the pasteurization process removes many nutritional components. Drinking raw milk can boost the immune system by exposing users to the small amounts of bacteria that naturally occur in raw milk. Advocates also prefer the taste of raw milk over pasteurized milk.

The risks of drinking raw milk should be determined by consumers rather than lawmakers or unelected regulators. Legalization would allow consumers to choose what foods they eat and stop the federal government’s persecution of small farmers at taxpayer expense. Raw milk consumption should be legalized across the country, and at the very least the FDA should cease its prohibition against interstate sales.

The following documents provide additional information about raw milk. 

Ten Principles of Health Care Policy
This pamphlet in The Heartland Institute’s Legislative Principles series describes the proper role of government in financing and delivering health care and provides reform suggestions to remedy current health care policy problems. 

The Latest Raw Milk Raid: An Attack on Food Freedom
Ari Levaux details an FDA raid on a Californian farm in 2011. A 64-year-old farmer was charged on 13 counts, stripped of his property, and had $70,000 confiscated by the FDA before being held on $121,000 bail. Raw milk sales are legal in California, but only by licensed dairy farms. This family farm caused no visible harm to its customers but was still targeted in a multimillion-dollar case by the FDA. 

State-by-State Review of Raw Milk Laws
This article and map break down the legal status of raw milk in each state. The categories are “retail sale legal,” “farm sales legal,” “herd shares legal by statute, regulation by court decision,” “no law on herd shares,” “legal as pet food,” and “raw milk sales illegal.” Although the FDA bans interstate raw milk sales, intrastate laws are determined by the states, and the laws are extremely varied. 

In Raw Milk Case, Activists See Food Freedom on Trial
Maria Godoy looks at a recent FDA prosecution of a raw milk farmer in Wisconsin. Relatively unique to this case, the defense isn’t arguing for the safety of raw milk, but for the freedom to engage in voluntary transactions. The convicted farmer was not even buying or selling raw milk, but merely distributing it in accordance with the dealings of a dairy club. The prosecution admits the offending farmer has caused no reported cases of disease as a result of raw milk production, but it says he poses potential risks to public health due to the inherent dangers of the product. 

FDA Increases Pressure on Raw Milk Movement
Sara Burrows of the Carolina Journal reports on the FDA’s increasingly oppressive policies against raw milk producers. In July 2011 the FDA’s threshold for food confiscation was lowered from needing “credible evidence” of harmful food production, to merely “believing” a given product is harmful. The federal effort against raw milk is being spearheaded by “Milk Czar” John Sheehan, who used to be an executive at several major American dairy companies. The FDA’s harshness has arguably backfired, as raw milk advocates claim the product has gained popularity since the raids publicized the product. 

The Milk Cure: Real Milk Cures Many Diseases
Mayo Clinic researcher Dr. J. R. Crewe’s studies on raw milk are often used by raw milk advocates to demonstrate the product’s health benefits. Crewe theorizes raw milk is biologically similar to blood and therefore its consumption helps the body develop more and better (in terms of fighting diseases) blood. When given to patients with tuberculosis, cardiovascular problems, hypertension, and other ailments, raw milk is remarkably effective at reducing edema, or build-ups of fluid, because the patient produces more blood capable of cleaning out the body. For diseases entirely based around edemas, raw milk can even act as a cure, and not just a treatment for alleviating side-effects of other diseases, Crewe has found. 

A Raw Milk Tasting
New Yorker columnist Dana Goodyear talks about her experience at a raw milk farm. She notes one key retort raw milk advocates make to claims of adverse health consequences is that the safety of drinking raw milk depends upon the cleanliness of the cow, and by extension, the farm on which the milk was produced. Clean farms produce perfectly safe raw milk, she reports, whereas unclean farms produce milk with dangerous bacteria. Given that most raw milk drinkers are dairy farmers, consumers are able to investigate their raw milk providers sufficiently to determine the safety of the product without government oversight.

Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit Health Care News at http://news.heartland.org/health, The Heartland Institute’s website at http://heartland.org, Heartland’s free online research database at www.policybot.org. 

If you have any questions about this issue or the Heartland website, contact John Nothdurft Heartland Institute’s director of government relations at jnothdurft@heartland.org or 312/377-4000.