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The Raw Story

A small, feisty band of well-connected health nuts are battling the state for the right to buy raw milk from local farms, and for the moment they are losing. It's just the kind of flap I like: a vast, bovine state and federal bureaucracy in unequal combat with a ragtag militia of udderly committed back-to-nature types.

Civil liberties lawyer Harvey Schwartz, who lives in Ipswich and has defended white supremacists and beleaguered Bay State tattoo artists, has been drinking raw milk for two years, and plans to defend his right to quaff the non-homogenized, unpasteurized white stuff. "It tastes so good, it's like having ice cream for breakfast,'' Schwartz says, adding that freedom to buy raw milk is "a great issue - it unites the Green Party and the Tea Party.''

A recap: It is legal in Massachusetts to buy raw milk at a farm but not in a store. However, the federal Food and Drug Administration and the state's Department of Public Health discourage raw milk consumption, because pasteurization removes potentially harmful bacteria, such as listeria and salmonella. A few years ago, a top FDA official likened drinking raw milk to "playing Russian roulette with your health,'' a catch phrase since parroted by the National Dairy Council, Oprah-genic Dr. Mehmet Oz, and many others.

"We don't want people to think this is a safe product to consume,'' says Suzanne Condon, a DPH executive. "Sixty-eight percent of all dairy-related, food-borne outbreaks relate to raw milk consumption.'' Earlier this year, one of her subordinates sent a letter to the state Department of Agricultural Resources alerting it to the existence of "buying clubs,'' large groups of raw milkies who circumvented the buy-at-the-farm rule by arranging for deliveries to consumers who don't live near farms. The MDAR promptly sent cease-and-desist letters to four clubs, stirring up a hornet's nest.

A group of aggrieved milkies, led by Cambridge's Abby Rockefeller, a longtime activist for composting toilets ("the queen of sludge,'' the Globe once called her), stormed into MDAR commissioner Scott Soares's office two weeks ago, demanding answers. Soares's position is that while MDAR supports the production of raw milk, he had to start enforcing the ban that prohibits retail distribution away from the farm. "These are just proposed changes,'' he says, awaiting a formal rulemaking.