DES MOINES, Iowa | Debate about the health attributes and risks of raw milk is spilling into statehouses and courtrooms across the country as proponents of unpasteurized dairy products push to make them easier for consumers to buy.
Supporters of the raw-milk cause say pasteurization, the process of heating milk to destroy bacteria and extend shelf life, destroys important nutrients and enzymes.
“We have new science today that shows raw milk contains … enzymes that kill pathogens and strengthen the immune system,” said Sally Fallon Morell, president of the D.C.-based Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit group pushing for increased access to raw milk.
Enzymes and other nutrients are “greatly reduced in pasteurized milk,” she said.
Public health officials disagree, saying raw milk carries an increased risk for bacterial contamination that can lead to illness and even death.
More than 1,500 people became ill from drinking raw milk between 1993 and 2006, the most recent data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Of those, 185 were hospitalized and two died.
The CDC said not all food-borne illnesses are reported, meaning the actual number is likely higher.
Ms. Fallon Morell said there also have been illnesses and deaths related to pasteurized products and that linking illnesses to raw milk is not an accurate assessment of the nutritional benefits of drinking unpasteurized milk.
The sale of raw milk is prohibited in 23 states and the District, although seven of them let people get milk through so-called herdshare programs, in which customers can buy ownership in a cow in return for raw milk from the animal.
Retail sales of raw milk are allowed in nine states, and 19 allow the sale of raw milk from a farm directly to an individual.
Lawmakers in at least six states — Georgia, Iowa, Missouri, New Jersey, Wisconsin and Wyoming — have introduced measures this year seeking to change laws governing raw milk. The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, based in Falls Church, Va., also has filed lawsuits in California, Iowa, Missouri, New York and Wisconsin challenging various aspects of states’ laws regarding raw milk.
The Iowa lawsuit filed earlier this year challenges the state’s ban on herdshare agreements.
“The Iowa Department of Agriculture contends this type of arrangement is illegal. Our position is that it is legal,” said Pete Kennedy, president of the Farm-to-Consumer group.
He said Iowa contradicts common sense.
“The farmer can drink milk from cows at the farm, so why can’t someone with an ownership or interest in that cow drink milk from those animals?” Mr. Kennedy asked.
Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey said in a statement that state officials “feel we have acted within our authority under Iowa code … in this situation.”
The issues in other states include testing requirements and delivery methods for raw milk and herdshare agreements.
Supporters of raw milk said they won’t give up.
“I think there are a number of people out there interested in having access to unprocessed milk, so I think it’s time for Iowa to allow that access somehow,” said Tom German, a livestock farmer near Holstein, Iowa, who has two dairy cows that produce milk for his family.
Nick Wallace, a livestock farmer near Keystone, Iowa, said the state’s ban on sales of raw milk infringe on consumers’ rights.
“We feel it’s a consumer’s right to put what we want in our bodies, and if we want to contract with a farmer who sells raw milk, we should be able to buy it,” Mr. Wallace said.
He said that with or without a change in law, people will find a way to get raw milk if they want it.
“There’s already people doing it; they’re just doing it under the cover of darkness,” Mr. Wallace said.
Those arguments don’t fly with public health officials.
“With raw milk, the concern is it can be contaminated and it provides a good environment for bacteria to grow to high levels, which increases the chance it can make people sick,” said Dr. Ann Garvey, the state public health veterinarian with the Iowa Department of Public Health.
Dr. Garvey, along with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the CDC, supports pasteurization, and they all say the process doesn’t significantly change the nutritional content of milk.
“It’s the measure taken to ensure what we’re consuming is safe and free from pathogens,” Dr. Garvey said.
Nevertheless, raw-milk advocates said governments should step out of the way and let people buy products they want.
Ms. Fallon Morell of the Price Foundation noted that Amish farmers in Pennsylvania are “making a fortune” selling raw milk to people in New Jersey and Washington, which don’t allow such sales.
Mr. Wallace, one of the Iowa farmers, concedes it’s a complex and polarizing issue.
“There’s a million reasons why you should and shouldn’t drink it,” he said, “but it boils down to personal rights.”