Madison residents Melinda Starkweather and Joe Plasterer believe their children couldn’t tolerate dairy products until they tried raw, unpasteurized milk.

Kristina Amelong, who owns an alternative medicine clinic in Madison, has recommended raw milk to her clients for 10 years as a way to improve their health.

And Mary Hayes, a Madison school teacher, trusts the raw milk she bought from Stoughton farmer Scott Trautman because she and her family could visit the farm and pet the grass-fed cows.

The state, however, says unpasteurized milk can harbor illness-causing bacteria. After years of lax enforcement, officials are clamping down on raw milk sales.

Wisconsin is among the minority of states that ban all raw milk sales, including cow-share arrangements where consumers buy shares in a cow in order to receive the raw milk produced.

The recent crackdown has angered a vocal and growing contingent of raw milk advocates. As the local food and alternative health movements have grown, more people are finding raw milk through the Internet and elsewhere.

Now state Rep. Chris Danou, D-Trempealeau, and state Sen. Pat Kreitlow, D-Chippewa Falls, have introduced a bill that would legalize on-farm sales in Wisconsin.

For Plasterer, whose family drinks six gallons of raw milk a week and feels healthier from six years of drinking what they call “liquid gold,” the issue boils down to the freedom to choose what he and his family eat.

“They’re not selling pot, they’re selling something our ancestors grew up on,” Plasterer said. “If the goal of the government was to have a healthy citizenship, it kind of boggles my mind that we have state agencies shutting this down.”

Raw milk called unsafe

For state regulators, most doctors, the milk industry, local, state and federal public health officials, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and academic researchers across the country — raw milk poses a potential danger, especially to children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

In August, 35 people, many of them children, were sickened by a bacteria that was linked to manure at a Walworth County farm selling raw milk though it was not found in the milk itself. The Zinniker Family Farm’s milk producer license was suspended in October and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection sent the case to the Walworth County district attorney.

DATCP had allowed the Zinnikers to sell raw milk on a small, local basis in the late 1990s through a “cow-share agreement,” but became concerned this year when it appeared the Zinnikers were selling on a much larger scale. They even had customers in Madison who would take turns making the three-hour round trip to East Troy to pick it up for members of their cooperative.

As raw milk is distributed farther from the farm, the less information the consumer may have about the risks, DATCP attorney Cheryl Daniels said.

“We’re closing the loop on the food safety issue,” she said.

Health officials point to the CDC’s report of 39 raw milk-related bacterial outbreaks in the United States between 1998 and 2005 that sickened 831 people, hospitalized 66 and killed one, as proof of the dangers. According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, since 2000 there have been five bacterial outbreaks linked to unpasteurized milk in the state that sickened 189 and hospitalized three.

Raw milk advocates report anecdotal evidence of raw milk helping the body stave off everything from autism to eczema and point to studies from the 1930s and 1940s that demonstrated the health benefits.

The health claims, however, aren’t supported by modern science, said Jeffrey LeJeune, a researcher at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center who has reviewed the scientific literature on raw milk.

It’s not that modern studies have disproved the health benefits, LeJeune said, they just haven’t been conducted. “Who’s going to support the research financially?” he asked, adding there would be ethical problems in conducting human research on a product the FDA banned from interstate commerce in 1987.

“This is not a medical question,” LeJeune said. “If that was how the decision was going to be made, it would have already been made. … It’s more of a social, political and cultural question.”

Raw milk sales illegal

Wisconsin has struggled with the raw milk question for the last decade.

Raw milk sales have been illegal here since 1955, though farm owners and farm employees are still allowed to drink it. Today, state and dairy industry officials justify that exception because farmers and their children in the farm environment presumably have built up an immunity to the potential pathogens in raw milk.

In 1996, the Zinnikers asked DATCP if they could set up a small “cow-share” program in which consumers would own part of the cow, thus gaining the same legal protection as farmers who are allowed to drink their own milk.

The state agreed. Daniels said the department has the authority to grant “variances” and at the time thought the Zinnikers were running a “small operation.”

“In practice, we couldn’t make it work under the law,” Daniels said.

The state signed one more cow-share agreement in 2000 with Clearview Acres in northwest Wisconsin. Over the next several months, Tim Wightman from Clearview Acres advised other farmers how to set up cow-share programs, though they were never sanctioned by the state.

Then, a year after giving Clearview Acres the green light, the state voided the agreement. However, Clearview Acres continued selling milk directly to consumers until December 2001, when a bacterial outbreak was reported in northwest Wisconsin. The state traced the outbreak to a milk tank at Clearview Acres, but Wightman said reports of the infection continued more than a month after the farm stopped selling to consumers.

“There was a purpose in targeting our farm,” said Wightman, who now lives in Ohio and is a consultant for Wisconsin-based Midwestern Bio-Ag. “If you can pick on the poster family of raw milk, it’s going to scare everybody else into compliance.”

In 2002, Daniels, who at the time was a state administrative law judge, wrote an opinion clarifying that cow-share arrangements were illegal in Wisconsin. But because her decision described the need for a raw milk drinker to have an ownership stake in a farm, several farms set up “farm-share” agreements, where consumers would own a piece of the farm.

Daniels ruled again in 2004 that farm-share agreements couldn’t be used to distribute raw milk and strongly urged DATCP to update its code to make that clear, which it did in early 2008. Regardless, the Washington-based Weston A. Price Foundation, a national raw milk advocacy group, has continued to tell farmers there is a loophole in state law.

The Zinnikers’ cow-share agreement also was canceled in 2001, but they continued with a farm-share agreement. Their operation kept a low enough profile that the state never took any action against it until this year, Daniels said.

Daniels said the department has increased its effort to root out illegal raw milk sales since an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in April quoted farmers who were selling raw milk, including the Zinnikers. DATCP warned the Zinnikers in April to cease their raw milk sales, eight years after canceling the cow-share agreement.

State cracks down

Before this year, DATCP enforcement had been far more lax, even in Dane County. In 2005, Amelong, who owns the Optimal Health Center in Madison, and her husband, Tim Cordon, owned a farm in Blue Mounds where they milked goats. Those who wanted the raw goat milk could lease a share of a goat and pick up the milk from the clinic refrigerator.

DATCP sent an inspector to the farm in June 2005 after receiving an e-mail about the operation being advertised on a Web site. The state’s file on the farm contains no indication that there was any follow-up, nor does it say who sent the e-mail. Amelong said they continued to provide milk to consumers, but left the farm in 2006 and returned to Madison for unrelated reasons.

In October, Amelong and Cordon were sent one of 11 letters to farmers from DATCP warning them to stop selling raw milk directly to consumers. Most of the farms were advertising their products through various Web sites.

Amelong still recommends raw milk to clients suffering from diabetes, attention-deficit disorder, difficulty gaining weight, eczema, arthritis, infertility or other health problems.

“We see those issues turn around when people focus on a nutrient-dense diet,” Amelong said. “Raw milk can be part of a nutrient-rich diet.”

Producer protests

The state hasn’t instigated all actions against raw milk sales. Stoughton farmer Scott Trautman was turned in by the dairy that processed his milk.

For Trautman the raw milk debate is about his livelihood as a small dairy farmer facing historically low milk prices.

Trautman sold his Internet business in 2004 and bought a 70-acre farm where he raises certified organic produce, hens and — for the past two years — grass-fed cows for beef and milk. His produce has been sold at the Dane County Farmers’ Market.

A small number of the 500 customers who buy food at his farm store also had bought his raw milk, labeled as “pet food,” for $6 a gallon. Otherwise Trautman shipped his milk to Baraboo-based Foremost Farms Dairy, earning about $1 a gallon.

But in early September, a milk hauler alerted Foremost Farms that Trautman was “selling milk out of both sides of the tank.” The dairy canceled Trautman’s contract through the National Farmers Organization, which reported Trautman to the state.

“The marketing of raw milk is illegal,” Foremost Farms spokeswoman Joan Behr said. “We did not want to be associated with illegal activity.”

Just like the Zinnikers, Trautman lost his milk producer license because he didn’t have a dairy to receive his milk. Without a license, Trautman has been hosting “milk-dumping” parties at his farm and at the Capitol in protest of the state’s ban on selling directly to consumers.

“The irony in us being shut down is we are doing more than anyone to safely and cleanly (produce) raw milk,” Trautman said. “At some point we could go to the state and say, ‘Are you sure we can’t do this?’ ”

Even raw milk advocates agree that in order for raw milk to be safely sold directly to consumers, farmers must feed their cows grass, rather than grain, take sanitary precautions, and test their milk regularly for bacteria.

Were the state to allow raw milk sales, state officials said it would cost more to regulate than pasteurized milk.

“It is possible to do, certainly there are states that do it,” Daniels said. “(But) if somebody really gets sick or dies, how do we reconcile that with our public health function? What does one do when it’s a child that gets sick?”

No support for consumers

The FDA isn’t happy about the resurgent demand for raw milk. In February, after an illness in Illinois was linked to a raw milk distributor in Wisconsin, the FDA told state officials during a conference call that stopping illegal raw milk sales was “a high priority” because they posed “a significant health risk.”

The dairy industry is also concerned that more widespread consumption of raw milk will increase the incidents of milk-related disease. Though milk-borne illness was rampant a century ago, pasteurization, refrigeration and more sanitary milking systems have reduced incidents of all milk-related bacterial infections to a tiny fraction of the CDC’s estimated 76 million cases of food-borne illness each year.

“It’s disconcerting that when we have such well-founded science that some people can dream up issues that aren’t supported by research and data and try to get a cottage industry going,” said Tim Griswold, business development director for the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association. “People continue to get sick and continue to die. When one of these issues happens, a negative light shines on the entire industry.”

The new bill being circulated would require dairies to obtain a Grade A license, follow sanitary practices and label their product as unpasteurized. It also protects the farmer from a lawsuit if their milk causes illness or death.

“What it boils down to is we sell raw meat and raw vegetables,” Rep. Danou said. “That’s where the two biggest sources of food-borne illnesses come from.”

Danou’s predecessor, Barbara Gronemus, tried unsuccessfully to pass a similar bill in 2005. The difference now, Danou said, is that support for local farmers has continued to grow.

Danou didn’t deny the safety concerns, but pointed out that farmers selling raw milk will want to maintain their customer base, which will encourage them to self-regulate.

“If there is an outbreak, it’s going to be extremely localized,” Danou said. “We can sell tobacco products, why can’t we sell raw milk?”

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