The Raw Milk Movement: Healthy or Hazardous?

Once a week on a suburban driveway outside of Tampa, a society of Floridians gathers to defy health warnings and purchase a product they have been repeatedly warned could kill them.

"I'll do whatever it takes to get the milk," said Steve Moreau, who said he drives three hours to get his hands on the product. But he's not searching for regular, grocery store milk.

Moreau and many others, ranging from parents to professionals, are buying raw milk -- untreated, unprocessed, unpasteurized, straight from the cow.

And raw milk drinkers say that it's not just a few people who are drinking it. They say it's a movement of people who want to feel healthier.

Drinking unpasteurized milk for good health might sound peculiar, especially in the age of deadly spinach. The process of pasteurization kills germs that cause salmonella and E. coli.

And according to the FDA Web site, "Raw milk can harbor dangerous micro-organisms that can pose serious health risks to you and your family."

In the last decade the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has documented more than a thousand cases of food-borne illness and two deaths, all caused by unpasteurized dairy products.

But raw milk devotees say the benefits outweigh the risks.

Christine Tyrell has been feeding her family raw milk for three years. "I really do feel we've seen medical benefits from this. My children are not as sick as they used to be."

Some people argue the changes felt by drinking raw milk might be psychosomatic.

"I don't deny that. They might be. All I know is I feel better," said Alan Petrillo, another raw milk drinker, who says raw milk cured his digestive problems.

The Law Behind the Raw

Though most doctors say there is no good science to back up these claims, raw milk drinkers believe pasteurization destroys beneficial proteins and enzymes that help with digestion and strengthen the immune system.

But the problem for devoted milk drinkers is that it is illegal to sell raw milk for human consumption in 23 states. Laws vary from state to state so raw milk drinkers around the country use loopholes to legally get their milk.

In Ohio the law only allows people to drink unpasteurized milk from a cow they own.

"We can't all own a cow much as we maybe would like to," said Maria Rethman, a cow herd share owner, "so we see this as a perfect opportunity for a family like ours."

Rethman is one of the 150 owners of a well-cared for herd of dairy cows in Versailles, Ohio. "The kids enjoy it. We always laugh, there's our cows. We call 'em our cows."

None of these owners are actually farmers, but as members of a "herd share" program they each own a percentage of these cows, which means they can legally drink the raw milk produced here.

Still the state warns unpasteurized milk is rarely safe. "Milk can be contaminated at the cleanest farm and in the cleanest sanitary conditions prior to pasteurization," said Louis Jones, chief of the Dairy Division at the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

In Florida raw milk drinkers don't have to buy the cow to get the milk. The law there permits raw milk to only be sold for animal consumption, so consumers say they are buying it as pet food.

An Absolute Demand

While consumers have certainly jumped through hoops to get their raw milk, most of the legal burden has fallen to the relatively few farmers who produce it. Dennis Stoltzfoos' quiet life as a Florida dairy farmer was interrupted two years ago when armed state agents raided his farm.

"I felt violated. It was awful. I didn't know if I was going to lose my livelihood," he said. "We had two girls, my wife was pregnant with number three and I didn't know if I was going to lose everything."

Despite government pressure, Stotzfoos pressed forward. "We did not stop. Customers would not allow us to stop. There's an absolute demand for raw milk. They will not allow us to stop."

Dennis now sells his milk as pet food, but he also feeds it to his own family. He said his milk is safe because he treats his 21 dairy cows with such care. They eat fresh grass, not processed grain and are free to roam pastures instead of being confined to pens. But health officials maintain milk can be contaminated in the cleanest sanitary conditions.

"I know there's a risk. It's a very small risk. We know our farmers," said Michelle Ruchener, a raw milk drinker.

The raw milk movement is an outgrowth of an exploding national preference for organic versus processed foods. But these "lacto-fermentation scofflaws" as they've been called, say that at the heart of this controversy, there is a more important issue at stake.

"As an informed consumer I feel it should be my right to have access to the product," said Petrillo. "To that extent I don't feel I need their protection."

That sentiment has helped propel raw milk drinkers into a national movement, one that extends from the farm to the occasional clandestine gathering in a suburban driveway.