Not too long ago, Winton Pitcoff recently noted, there wasn't any need for the term "raw milk."
"We just called it 'milk,'" he said.
For generations, the milk that most Americans consumed was pretty much straight from the cow, without the benefits or disadvantages—opinions on that point diverge widely—of pasteurization. That process, in which milk is heated almost to the boiling point to destroy potentially harmful pathogens, then quickly cooled, was introduced in the U.S. around the turn of the 20th century and within a few decades had become standard practice.
But a growing and increasingly visible movement maintains that pasteurization is a largely unnecessary process that in fact strips milk of beneficial vitamins and enzymes. "Raw milk is the ultimate whole food," in the words of the Raw Milk Network of the Northeast Organic Farming Association's Massachusetts chapter. "It contains many nutrients essential to human health, and comes complete with companion enzymes and amino acids necessary for the human body to make use of those nutrients."
This weekend, NOFA Massachusetts is organizing open houses at a number of dairies around the state as part of Raw Milk Dairy Days. Consumers can meet farmers (and their cows), shop, and learn about the production of raw milk, including health and safety precautions taken by the dairies. Participating dairies include, in this part of the state, Chase Hill Farm in Warwick, the farm at the Northfield Mount Hermon school, Robinson Farm in Hardwick, Taproot Commons Farm in Cummington and Cricket Creek Farm in Williamstown. (The open houses are scheduled for Sept. 8 and 9; for more details, go to nofamass.org.)
"It's a great opportunity to get out to the farm people who maybe have heard about raw milk and wonder what it means," said Pitcoff, coordinator of the Raw Milk Network. Given the strong opinions, pro and con, about raw milk, "it works best for people if they go to a farm and see where it's being made, how it's being made, see the cows, talk to the farmer," he said.
While raw milk is growing in popularity—23 Massachusetts dairies sell raw milk to consumers, double the number that did in 2006, according to NOFA—the medical and public health establishment is firmly opposed to its consumption. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration disputes claims that pasteurization reduces the nutritional value of milk and maintains that it's unsafe to drink raw milk, a position that's also held by the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics. In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study of dairy-related illnesses in the U.S. between 1993 and 2006, which found that while raw milk accounts for 1 percent of total dairy production, 60 percent of dairy-related illnesses were linked to raw milk.
State governments have taken a less uniform position on the issue. Laws governing the sale of raw milk vary from state to state, from the most restrictive (in 10 states, including Rhode Island, it's illegal to sell) to the most liberal (another 10, including Connecticut, New Hampshire and Maine, allow its sale in stores).
Massachusetts falls in the middle; consumers can buy raw milk, but only at farms. Farmers who sell the product must be licensed by the Mass. Department of Agricultural Resources and must comply with regulations, including labeling milk bottles with the warning: "Raw milk is not pasteurized. Pasteurization destroys organisms that may be harmful to human health."
A few years ago, DAR attempted to shut down raw milk "buying clubs," groups of consumers who take turns driving to farms to pick up milk for all their members. To participants, such arrangements are a time- and gas-saving convenience, sparing multiple people multiple trips to often far-away dairies.
But to the state, they represented a health risk; as Scott Soares, DAR's commissioner at the time, told the Boston Globe, "The sanitation controls that are required by the state are at the farm, and we have no way of knowing what happens to the product after it leaves the farm."
The Mass. Department of Public Health, which has taken a particularly strong position against public sale of raw milk, lobbied hard against the buying clubs. In a May 2010 letter to DAR urging that department to shut down the clubs, DPH Commissioner John Auerbach wrote that "while in an ideal world we would prefer that all milk sold in Massachusetts be pasteurized," at the very least, "if raw milk is to be sold, procedures must be in place to ensure the greatest possible protections to consumers."
In the end, DAR—which had sent cease-and-desist letters to four milk-buying clubs—tabled the issue. While the department has not sent out any more cease-and-desist letters, Pitcoff said, the controversy has left many consumers and farmers feeling uneasy.
Meanwhile, raw milk proponents have rallied behind a bill that would allow licensed raw-milk dairies to deliver the product directly to consumers and to distribute the milk through CSA programs, under regulations to be established by DAR. The measure, Pitcoff said, would be more convenient for consumers, would allow farmers to reach more customers, and would be greener than the current system, under which every consumer has to drive sometimes long distances to pick up his or her milk.
It would also address concerns about milk-buying clubs; rather than worry about whether consumers picking up bulk orders of milk will keep the product properly refrigerated during delivery, why not allow farmers to deliver the milk themselves? "They're the ones who are most invested in getting it to people safely and in the right conditions," Pitcoff said.
The raw milk delivery bill was filed by state Rep. Anne Gobi (D-Spencer); co-sponsors include, from this region, Reps. Denise Andrews (D-Orange), Peter Kocot (D-Northampton), Stephen Kulik (D-Worthington), William "Smitty" Pignatelli (D-Lenox), John Scibak (D-South Hadley), Todd Smola (R-Palmer) and Ellen Story (D-Amherst), and Sens. Stephen Brewer (D-Barre), Ben Downing (D-Pittsfield) and Michael Knapik (R-Westfield).
The bill received a favorable recommendation from the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee and in February was sent to the House Ways and Means Committee. While it did not come to the Legislature for a vote before the end of formal session, on July 31, Kulik, vice chair of Ways and Means, said he hopes to bring the bill to a vote during an informal session.
"There's little if any direct opposition to the bill that I'm aware of," Kulik told the Advocate. While DAR has expressed concern that the proposal would lead to budget and personnel pressures on the department, he said, he doesn't see those as insurmountable challenges.
"I don't think some of the concerns that have been raised about safety and health issues are all that meaningful," Kulik added. "The real growth in interest in raw milk comes from people who care about food and where it comes from. ... I think people who are interested in it tend to be those who are most careful about handling it."
By meeting a growing consumer demand, Kulik said, the bill would also create welcome new opportunities for dairy farmers.
"It's hard to make money as a dairy farmer, but this provides an opportunity to add some value to their product, in a specialty niche," he said. "Whatever we can do to help support dairies in Massachusetts, I think we need to do."