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AK Raw-milk Drinkers Work Legal Loophole to Get Their Fix

Daily News reporter Stephanie Komarnitsky and her husband, photographer Stephen Nowers, tried to eat only locally grown and raised food for a week. Can two grocery-store addicts embrace an all-Alaska diet? See what they found out. In part three of four, they go in search of local milk.

WASILLA -- If you ask the right people in the right places, you can get it. No, it's not the Matanuska Valley's infamous marijuana. This is milk -- specifically, raw, unpasteurized milk.

A thriving market exists in the Valley for raw goat and cow milk. And those who drink it swear by it. One woman even credits drinking raw milk for curing her children's lactose intolerance and her animal allergies.

Just don't ask those selling it to talk about it in print.

The problem is this: It's illegal to sell raw milk in the state, and penalties include fines up to $500 a day and a year in jail. That makes some producers leery of seeing their name in the newspaper.

After negotiation and a promise of anonymity for those involved, we purchased a half-gallon of goat's milk for $5 and a gallon of raw cow's milk for $5. For our weeklong eating-local experiment, we didn't buy Matanuska Maid because most of its milk is imported, and the Northern Lights Dairy in Delta Junction, which does sell all-local milk, was too far from our Palmer home.

Still, not everyone is gun-shy. Gary and Carla Beu, who run Windsong Farm near Palmer, have been providing raw milk to Valley residents and others for years. They do it by exploiting a loophole in state laws. They don't sell milk; they sell shares in their cows.

For a one-time $25 fee and a $22.50 monthly charge, customers receive a share in one of the couple's two Holsteins, Christine and Ruby.

That way, people who come to get their milk, which amounts to a gallon a week per share, are simply collecting their interest in the cow.

Gary Beu, who christened the program "condo cow," said they currently have about 45 customers, mostly Valley residents.

Those who drink raw milk are nothing if not passionate. They say it tastes better and is healthier. Pasteurizing milk, which involves heating it to a certain temperature, kills potentially harmful bacteria like salmonella, but they say it also kills off all the good enzymes.

Homogenizing -- processing the milk to break down the fat molecules -- is just as bad, they argue. It actually changes some of the physical properties of fat molecules, which is why there is no cream layer at the top of whole milk sold in stores.

Sally Fallon, who heads the Weston A. Price Foundation, a privately funded, Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates drinking raw milk, said she doesn't even consider what's sold in stores to be milk. She calls it "an adulterated, milk-flavored product."

The foundation, which also seeks a ban on feeding soy milk to infants, is named for a Cleveland dentist who studied the diets of people around the world after becoming convinced of a link between poor nutrition and dental problems.

But health officials, including state officials and those with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, say there are good reasons not to drink raw milk, including the risk of contracting diseases like tuberculosis and rabies.

A 2003 statement paper on raw milk issued by the FDA offers no statistics on the relative risk of drinking raw milk, in part because no one knows how much raw milk is consumed in the country. But the paper cites several cases since the 1980s of food poisoning the agency says were traced to raw milk consumption. Just last week, four children in California were sickened by e. coli poisoning that state health officials there suspect came from drinking raw milk. No cases have been reported in Alaska, according to state veterinarian Bob Gerlach.

Advocates, however, dispute whether some of those outbreaks were legitimately traced to raw milk. They contend the risks of drinking unpasteurized milk are overstated.

Fallon says there is a double standard with raw milk. She noted the recent nationwide E. coli scare with spinach and a case in Washington state this summer in which several dozen people got sick from eating oysters.

"No one is saying we have to pasteurize the oysters," she said.

Anne-Corrine Kell, a stay-at-home mom who lives near Palmer, buys from the Beus. She said she considered the arguments on both sides but felt the potential benefits outweighed the potential risks, even for her two young children.

"I know it's a risk," she said. "But I also know there's a risk in not building an immune system in a healthy kid. You can't raise them in a bubble."

Gerlach said the Beus' cow-share program falls outside of the state regulation of milk products.

At best, he said, he hopes people will educate themselves about the risk before deciding to drink unpasteurized milk.

MIXED VERDICT

For our part, we weren't sure what to think about the glass containers of cow and goat milk sitting in our refrigerator. They looked harmless enough, but clearly, drinking raw milk posed some risk. Just how much wasn't clear.

The debate over raw milk appeared bottomless. Fallon, for example, sounded fairly reasonable on the phone, and no one we talked to had gotten sick from drinking raw milk.

But Gerlach and other health officials were convincing, with talk of infections like mastitis and bacteria that could turn up in raw milk even with safe handling practices.

Still, after working so hard to get our milk, we had to try it. And honestly, I've been curious about raw cow's milk for years, since I heard a fan describe the cream sitting on top.

The verdict? It was good. The milk was sweet and fresh-tasting. The cream wasn't quite as firm as I imagined it would be, but it was firm enough to scoop out with a spoon and mix with my coffee each morning. The goat milk was less sweet, more watery, with a flatter flavor, but still cold and refreshing.

If it were just two of us, we'd buy the cow's milk again in a heartbeat. It's as cheap as the organic milk we usually buy and certainly tasted better. But having two children makes the choice more difficult, and we haven't yet decided whether to do it again.

Still, there is no doubt that the local fresh milk passed the taste test. Now, would we find the same with a locally raised chicken? And would it be worth the cost?

Wednesday in Life: Can dinner guests taste the difference between a local chicken and an Outside bird?


Daily News reporter S.J. Komarnistky can be reached at skomarnitsky@adn.com. Daily News photographer Stephen Nowers can be reached at snowers@adn.com.


Types of milk

• Raw: Milk that has not been pasteurized or homogenized.

• Pasteurized: Milk that has been heated to extend shelf life and kill harmful bacteria, commonly to 161 degrees for 15 seconds or 145 degrees for at least 30 minutes

• Ultrapasteurized: Similar to pasteurized except the milk has been heated to a higher temperature of 280 degrees for at least two seconds.

• Homogenized: A mechanical process used to keep the fat in milk from separating and rising to the top. It involves forcing milk at high pressure through fine mesh holes to break down fat molecules.