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Raw Milk's Popularity Spurs Debate Over Safety, Health

ERIE - When the neighborhood kids visit the Lafferty family's bustling farmhouse, they're offered water, juice or milk.

"They always say, 'Milk, milk, milk,' " says Nickie Lafferty.

The Laffertys' milk - hand-labeled and stored in Mason jars with a thick head of cream - is straight from the cow. No pasteurization. No processing.

Every afternoon, customers who own a portion of the family's dairy herd visit the 30-acre farm, pulling jars of the farm-fresh, raw milk from a small refrigerator in a spotless room next to the milking parlor.

Whether those people are playing Russian roulette with their health or getting a safer - and tastier - product than the milk found in grocery stores remains a source of contention. That debate is growing in intensity as state health officials crack down on dairies offering other unpasteurized milk products, such as butter and yogurt.

Health officials repeatedly warn that raw milk sickens dozens every year. But since Colorado lawmakers in 2005 allowed farmers to privately sell shares of their dairy herd to drinkers of unpasteurized milk, the number of Colorado dairies offering straight-from-the-cow milk has climbed to 60.

Colorado is one of 29 states - and Wisconsin is about to join them - with cow-share programs that use communal ownership to get around laws forbidding the retail sale of raw milk.

Those who drink raw milk say pasteurization removes some of milk's health benefits. They herald its creamy taste and the security that comes from knowing the source of their food.