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Debate over Raw Milk Grows

Tim Vetter was overweight. He felt unhealthy and needed to make some changes in his life.

So he launched what he calls his "health revolution" - and found his miracle potion.

"I was about 250 pounds," Vetter says now. "Sixty pounds later, I'm pretty passionate about raw milk."

Vetter is one of millions of people who drink unpasteurized milk, believing in its power to cure everything from allergies to obesity. And he is among a growing number of raw milk converts, estimated to be as many as 3 million Americans.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that any milk sold between states be pasteurized and has long discouraged the consumption of raw milk, saying unpasteurized milk and milk products put too many people at risk of potentially deadly poisoning.

But as more people become raw milk drinkers, the battle over its merits and safety has exploded.

"You have a small number of people drinking it, but it's become a huge issue," said David Gumpert, author of "The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America's Emerging Battle Over Food Rights." "I think it's because milk is such a basic food and there are emotional overtones. It's the first food we eat."

In the past several years, dairies that produce raw milk in the St. Louis area and around the country have seen demand soar as more people become convinced not just of raw milk's health benefits, but that government-enforced pasteurization robs milk of nutrients.

"It's getting huge, no doubt about it," Vetter, of St. Louis, said. "You've got to bend over backward to get it."

Regulators allow some form of nonretail sale in 33 states. Only 10 states allow milk sales at the retail level, while nine states and Washington, D.C., ban it. Missouri and Illinois ban retail sales at stores, allowing sales from farms and by prearranged delivery to individuals.

But in recent months, several states, including dairy powerhouse Wisconsin, have moved to loosen laws restricting raw milk sales. At the same time, the FDA has issued renewed warnings about raw milk safety, urging states to do the same. Some states have cracked down on sellers, and one, Massachusetts, is trying to ban raw milk buyers clubs.

In Missouri last fall, Attorney General Chris Koster filed suit against a raw milk producer after the producer sold raw milk to an undercover health department employee in the parking lot of a Springfield, Mo., health food store, putting some producers on the defensive.

"There are agents out there, trying to entrap farmers," said one Missouri producer, who didn't want to be named because he was concerned that regulators might "come crawling."


Beginning in the 1940s, states began requiring pasteurization of milk, and the number of milk-borne illnesses dropped, regulators and food safety advocates say. Since then, pasteurization has become the dairy industry standard.

But raw milk advocates say the process has removed vital enzymes and bacteria from the American diet, leading to a rise in digestive disorders. Many people are convinced that widespread pasteurization has led to an increase, particularly in children, of everything from allergies to autism to attention deficit disorder.

"We have the science on our side," said Sally Fallon Morrell, who leads the Washington-based Campaign for Real Milk. "Raw milk is superior for growth, development, bone density, protection against cavities and infections, protections against allergies and building the immune system."

Public health experts and regulators question that science. More important, they say, raw milk poses a public health threat.

From 1998 to 2008, according to federal figures, there were 1,614 illnesses, 187 hospitalizations and two deaths linked to raw milk.

Raw milk advocates contend that many of these illnesses, and the two deaths, are actually from raw cheese, often produced in peoples' homes out of raw milk bought at conventional dairies and known as "bathtub cheese."