Is Raw Milk Illegal?

Where to Buy Raw Milk Legally or Why You Can’t at All

Is Raw Milk Illegal?

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Humans have enjoyed raw milk benefits for millennia. But now only 28 American states allow the sale of raw milk and it is illegal in Canada. Why is raw milk illegal and how can you enjoy the health benefits of unpasteurized milk?

A History of Raw Milk Benefits

As early as 9000 BC, humans consumed the milk of other animals. Cattle, sheep, and goats were first domesticated in Southeast Asia, though they were initially kept for meat.

Animal milk primarily went to human infants with no access to breast milk. After infancy, most humans stop producing lactase, an enzyme which enables digestion of lactose. Cheese was developed as a way to preserve milk. It also removed a majority of the lactose. A genetic mutation occurred in ancient Europe which allowed adults to continue drinking milk. This coincides with the historical rise in dairy farming, suggesting that lactase persistence is an effect of natural selection since dairy products were such an important survival food during those times. Currently, adults that can drink milk compose 80 percent of Europeans and their descendants compared to 30 percent from Africa, Asia and Oceania.

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Early germ-killing methods were developed to deal with milk-borne disease. One involved simply heating the milk to temperatures just below boiling, where proteins do not yet curdle. Paneer and ricotta cheeses involve heating the milk above 180 degrees, killing all bacteria and removing lactose at the same time. Aging hard cheeses for over 60 days also eliminates dangerous pathogens.

As it became a major food source, raw milk benefits battled the risks. Germ theory was proposed in 1546 but didn’t gain strength until the 1850s. Louis Pasteur discovered in 1864 that heating beer and wine killed most bacteria that caused spoilage and the practice soon extended to dairy products. When milk pasteurization was developed, bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis were thought to be transmitted through the liquid to humans, as well as other deadly diseases. The process became commonplace in the United States in the 1890s.

The Dangers

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) claims that improperly handled milk is responsible for more hospitalizations than any other food-borne illness. The agency claims raw milk is one of the world’s most dangerous food products. Pathogens such as E. coli, Campylobacter, Listeria, and Salmonella can travel in the liquid, as well as diseases such as diphtheria and scarlet fever. Especially susceptible are pregnant women, young children, elderly adults, and individuals with compromised immune systems.

“Raw milk can carry dangerous germs that are passed from the cow, goat, sheep, or other animal. This contamination could come from infection of the cow’s udder, cow diseases, cow feces coming into contact with the milk, or bacteria that lives on the skin of cows. Even healthy animals may carry the germs that can contaminate the milk and make people very sick. There is no guarantee that raw milk supplied by ‘certified,’ ‘organic,’ or ‘local’ dairies is safe. The best thing to do to protect you and your family’s health is to only drink pasteurized milk and milk products,” says Dr. Megin Nichols, Veterinary Epidemiologist for the CDC. 

Widespread industrialization is responsible for the growth of bacteria within milk. Even before the invention of refrigerators, the short amount of time between milking and consumption minimized the growth of bacteria and disease risk. When urbanites were allowed to keep cows, the milk didn’t have to travel long distances. Then cities densified and milk had to be transported from the country, giving it time to develop pathogens. It is reported that, between 1912 and 1937, 65,000 people in England and Wales died of tuberculosis contracted from drinking milk.

After countries adopted the process of pasteurization, milk was then considered one of the safest foods. The process increases milk’s refrigerated shelf life to two or three weeks and UHT (ultra-heat treatment) can keep it good for up to nine months outside of a refrigerator.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration debunks popular myths regarding raw milk. It advises that consumers should not consume milk, cream, soft cheeses, yogurt, pudding, ice cream, or frozen yogurt made from unpasteurized milk. Hard cheeses, such as cheddar and Parmesan, are considered safe as long as they have been cured at least 60 days.

Raw Milk Benefits

Advocates of raw milk dispute the dangers by claiming that benefits far outweigh risks. One study found that children who consumed raw milk had a lower risk of asthma and allergies.

The Weston A. Price Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to restoring nutrient-dense foods within the American diet, promotes raw milk benefits through its “Real Milk” campaign. It claims that, of the 15 milk-borne outbreaks listed by the FDA, none proved that pasteurization would have prevented the problem. The foundation also holds that raw milk is no more dangerous than deli meats.

Advocates claim that homogenization, the process that reduces the size of fat globules to suspend cream within whole milk, has unhealthy effects. Concerns include the uptake of the protein xanthine oxidase, which is increased by homogenization, and how it may lead to hardening of the arteries.

They say that raw milk can be produced hygienically and that pasteurization nullifies nutritious compounds, and 10-30 percent of heat-sensitive vitamins are destroyed in the process. Pasteurization also impacts or destroys all bacteria, whether dangerous or beneficial. Good bacteria include probiotics such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, which is necessary for culturing yogurt and cheese. L. acidophilus is also associated with reduction of childhood diarrhea, aided digestion for lactose-intolerant people, and a reduction in heart disease. In mainstream production of cheese and yogurt, milk is pasteurized then cultures such as L. acidophilus are added back in.

Immunoglobulins and the enzymes lipase and phosphatase are believed to be beneficial but are inactivated by heat. Immunoglobulins are antibodies used by the immune system to identify and neutralize pathogens. The enzymes are used in digestion. Food scientists counter this argument by claiming that many beneficial enzymes survive pasteurization and those found within raw milk are nullified within the stomach anyway.

Since ultra-pasteurized milk does not easily curdle, raw milk is especially prized for cheese, butter, and other dairy products. Pasteurized milk curdles as it should but some retail establishments only sell ultra-pasteurized versions of products such as goat milk or heavy cream.

Raw Milk

State Laws

Drinking raw milk is not illegal. But selling it may be.

Raw milk hasn’t been illegal for long. In 1986, Federal Judge Norma Holloway Johnson ordered the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to ban interstate shipment of raw milk and its products. The FDA banned interstate distribution in final package form in 1987. Sale of raw milk has been outlawed in half the states. The CDC has documented fewer illnesses from raw milk in states that prohibit sales.

Currently, no raw milk products may pass state lines for final sale except for hard cheeses that have been aged two months. And those cheeses must carry a clear label that they are unpasteurized.

Individuals researching local milk laws should pay careful attention to dates on the articles. Many websites list states allowing retail sale and cow shares, but many laws have changed since then. The following information was obtained from Raw Milk Nation, in a report published October 19, 2015. The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund urges followers to email or call if any state laws change so they can update their information.

Please be aware that laws frequently change. Is raw milk illegal in your state? A quick call to your local USDA will provide the best up-to-date answers.

States allowing retail sales to obtain raw milk benefits include Arizona, California, Connecticut, Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Washington. Arizona, California, and Washington mandate that cartons contain appropriate warning labels. Oregon allows retail sale of raw goat and sheep milk only.

Licensed on-farm sales are legal within Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin. Utah also allows retail sales if the producer has majority ownership in the store, though cartons must carry warning labels. Missouri and South Dakota also allow delivery, and Missouri allows sales at farmer’s markets.

Unlicensed on-farm sales are allowed within Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Oregon, Vermont, and Wyoming, though Mississippi only allows goat milk sales. Oklahoma has a limit on the volume of goat milk sales. Mississippi and Oregon have a limit on the number of lactating animals. New Hampshire and Vermont limit sales volume. Delivery is legal within Missouri, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Wyoming. And farmer’s market sales are allowed within New Hampshire and Wyoming.

Though sale may be illegal within several states, herdshares and cowshares are allowed. These are programs where people co-own dairy animals, providing feed and veterinary care. In return, all individuals share in the output, negating actual purchase of the milk. Some states have laws allowing these programs while others have no laws legalizing or prohibiting them but have taken no action to stop them. Cowshares were legal in states such as Nevada prior to 2013 but no longer are. Allowable states include Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Michigan, North Dakota, Ohio, Utah, Tennessee, and Wyoming. Tennessee also allows sale of raw milk for pet use only. Within Colorado, Idaho, and Wyoming, cowshare programs must register within the state.

States banning sale of raw milk for human consumption include Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Montana, New Jersey, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Virginia, and West Virginia. Rhode Island and Kentucky allow the sale of goat milk only, and by doctor’s prescription. Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, and Virginia have no law regarding herdshares. Raw pet milk is legal within Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, and North Carolina. Nevada allows sale of raw milk with specific permits, which are so difficult to acquire that most Nevada dairies do not have the license.

Though sale of raw milk for pet consumption is legal in nearly every state if the producer has a commercial feed license, most states will not issue feed licenses for the sale of milk.

Some states go as far as outlawing “distribution” of raw milk. That means you can’t even give it away.

Obtaining Raw Milk Legally

Residents craving raw milk benefits may try to skirt laws. Though Reno, Nevada sits just minutes from the Californian border, stores within California often check identification prior to selling milk. Even cowshare programs within California do not allow Nevadans to participate because of the ban.

Within states that allow sale of raw milk only for pet use, residents often lie about intended purposes and consume it themselves. This is dangerous, especially if the person selling the milk intends it for animals and has not collected it hygienically. Purchasing “pet milk” then using it for human consumption also endangers the seller if the purchaser becomes ill and admits where they got the milk. Sellers can face prosecution when they tried to follow the law.

A legal way to obtain raw milk is to own a dairy animal. Jersey cow milk production is coveted among dairies because it is richer, creamier, sweeter, and higher in beneficial proteins. Farmers with smaller plots of land consider goat milk benefits while those with acreage can support high milk-yielding cows. But farmers owning dairy animals are cautioned to stay educated of local laws. Raw milk benefits are coveted and individuals may attempt to trade in states where bartering for raw milk is illegal.

Unfortunately, enjoying raw milk benefits legally is getting harder. While States have loosened some regulations, such as cottage food laws, which regulate selling homemade food, but have tightened rules regarding milk. Often it isn’t worth it for farmers to sell their extra milk. If you have no space for a dairy animal, and cannot purchase the milk legally, choose pasteurized over ultra-pasteurized for purposes such as cheese. Yogurt and buttermilk, with live and active cultures, can replace probiotics lost within pasteurization.

Whether milk should be pasteurized for public health reasons, or whether raw milk benefits outweigh the risks, sale of raw milk isn’t likely becoming more liberal any time soon.

Do you enjoy raw milk benefits? Do you raise your own cows for milk or do you get it from local farmers? Is raw milk illegal in your state?

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