Four weeks after the government moved to shut down Amish farmer Dan Allgyer for selling fresh, unpasteurized milk across state lines, angry moms who made up much of his customer base rallied on the Capitol’s grounds Monday to demand that Congress rein in the food police.
The moms milked a cow just across the street from the Senate and served up gallons of fresh milk, playfully daring one another to drink what, if sold across state lines, would be considered contraband product.
“The FDA really screwed up this time. They got between a mom and a farmer,” said Mark McAfee, who runs Organic Pastures Dairy Co. in Fresno, Calif., which under his state’s laws he legally sells at 400 markets, but which he cannot ship across state lines without running afoul of the Food and Drug Administration.
Raw milk has been making a comeback in recent years as consumers try to eat locally and fresh. But the FDA has been fighting back, arguing that there are big risks to drinking fresh milk and that it brings no benefits over the pasteurized version.
The most recent action to garner headlines came last month when the FDA went to court to stop Mr. Allgyer, the Amish farmer who runs Rainbow Acres Farm in Kinzer, Pa., from selling his raw milk to an eager customer base in the Washington region.
The FDA and the Justice Department sought a court injunction after FDA agents conducted a one-year sting operation, complete with fake aliases and lab testing, to determine that the milk they surreptitiously obtained from Mr. Allgyer was, in fact, unpasteurized.
Mr. Allgyer was not at Monday’s rally, but his defenders were infuriated that he had been targeted, and said it shows a government out of control.
“Despite the fact that there is no actual proof that anyone has ever been injured by milk from Dan’s cows, he is being treated as if he were a drug lord by our federal government,” said Jonathan Emord, a D.C.-based lawyer who says he has defeated the FDA in court more than any other lawyer. “He is being treated as if what he sells is contraband that will cause injury to anyone who gets near the substance. And this is fresh milk.”
The movement ties together the liberal and conservative ends of the political spectrum who are wary of government interference, and their thoughts were summed up in the sign that read: “Those who wrote the Constitution drank raw milk.”
One child held a sign that read, “My cow eats grass — does yours?” while a woman wore a T-shirt that said, “The revolution will not be pasteurized.”
One defense group says there are as many as 10 million raw-milk consumers in the country. Sales are perfectly legal in 10 states but illegal in 11 states and the District. The other states have varying restrictions on purchase or consumption.
Thanks to Congress’ power to regulate interstate commerce, the FDA tries to stop sales across state lines, arguing that raw milk could contain unhealthy bacteria.
The widespread use of pasteurization, which involves heating food to kill harmful organisms and took off in the 1920s and 1930s, dramatically reduced instances of milk-transmitted diseases such as typhoid fever and diphtheria.
Dr. Robert Tauxe at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in the 11 years between 1998 and 2008 state and local health officials reported they investigated 86 outbreaks related to raw milk or products made from it, such as ice cream or cheese. Those outbreaks led to almost 1,700 illnesses, 191 hospitalizations and two deaths — both from Mexican-style raw milk cheeses.
He said it’s a good thing that parents are taking control of their health decisions, but said he wants them to have the facts.
“An important thing I think for all of us to acknowledge is these people are making decisions because they are concerned about health,” he said. “We just want people to recognize that the hazards are real, the risk is important and the history is very, very long. We just don’t think that raw milk can be made significantly safe enough without pasteurizing it.”
He said E. coli 0157, which can be caught from raw milk, can then be spread from child to child.
The government, realizing where the milk decisions are being made, is fighting moms with moms.
On the CDC’s website page for fresh milk, the agency displays videos from several mothers describing the health disasters that ensued after they fed their families raw milk.
In one, Kalee Prue, a single mom from Connecticut, said she got E. coli after she switched to raw milk, and said the resulting kidney problems landed her in the hospital. By the time she was done with treatments, she said, she’d had more than 400 donors’ worth of plasma.
“You have to make good choices and you need to think about consequences. You have to weigh risks,” she said. “Something that comes out this close to a cow’s rear end, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”
The issue has popped up in Congress, where Rep. Ron Paul, the Texas Republican who is running for his party’s presidential nomination, introduced a bill last week to allow raw milk shipments to cross state lines. He has introduced the legislation in the past, to no avail.
Still, the mere mention of his name at Monday’s rally drew one of the biggest cheers.
Raw milk consumers say they want freedom of choice in food consumption, and have plenty of anecdotal stories to counter the government’s claim that there is no health benefit to raw milk that can’t be gleaned from pasteurized milk.
Leah Mack, who runs Grazy Days Family Farm in Union Bridge, Md., and who brought the cow that was milked, said she grew up vegan but her health was suffering.
She switched about six years ago and began drinking raw milk and said she can feel the effects in her teeth — literally. She said she used to have cavities all the time, including underneath of already-drilled fillings, but her teeth are now healthy, as are her children’s teeth.
“The dentist said ‘You’re doing great.’ Not a cavity, not anything. I said ‘Yes. This confirms this stuff that I believe and that I felt,’ ” she said.