Proponents say that raw milk is more nutritious than homogenized. But many health agencies warn that it can carry dangerous bacteria. The federal government and virtually all public health agencies oppose consumption of raw milk because it can carry dangerous bacteria such as E. coli 0157:H7, listeria and campylobacter. In March, 13 people in Michigan were sickened by campylobacter in an outbreak tied to raw milk sold at a northern Indiana farm.
But raw milk drinkers argue that they should be allowed to decide whether to take that risk.
Many who drink raw milk believe that the unprocessed, non-homogenized version is more nutritious and that it can ease ailments such as allergies, asthma and gastrointestinal issues, although public health agencies and nearly every major medical association in the country say those benefits are unproved.
"It's more than a health issue; it's a human rights issue," said Kathryne Pirtle of Addison, Ill., a professional musician who credits raw milk with eliminating the chronic pain she experienced for 25 years. "Real food and the raw milk movement are the answers to our healthcare crisis and the future of our populations."
The FDA bans interstate sales of raw milk, but states regulate its sale within their borders. Sales are now legal in 27 states under some circumstances, with bills to legalize it pending in Georgia and Wisconsin. In several states, including California, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, raw milk can be sold in retail stores.
In some states, consumers who want raw milk must take their own containers directly to the farm. Another option is a cow share, in which a consumer contracts with a farmer or "milk club" operator to buy a share of the animal. As part-owner, the customer is entitled to some of the cow's milk.
Industry watchers suspect these arrangements may be one reason that federal officials are cracking down on raw milk sales, stepping up efforts to warn consumers of the dangers and urging states to strengthen their regulations.