Efforts to ease rules on raw milk fall
Luke Rhodes distributes his product to customers from his van in parking lots. It's not an illicit substance or blood diamonds. It's just raw milk.
Indiana is one of 20 states that prohibit the sale of raw milk for human consumption.
While raw milk supporters contend that pasteurization depletes milk of beneficial nutrients and that government regulation is unnecessary, the dairy industry, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that because pasteurization kills harmful bacteria and extends shelf life, the threat of E. coli or salmonella should take precedence.
Two proposed bills in the Indiana Senate aimed to water down the state's raw milk law this year, but these attempts spoiled.
Raised on a family farm in northeastern Ohio, Rhodes, 49, has been drinking raw milk all his life. Because the farm produced milk, he said, there was no point in buying pasteurized milk from the store.
Rhodes' parents told him their raw milk was healthier, a belief he holds to be true to this day.
"Raw milk from grass-fed animals has a lot of beneficial enzymes and bacteria. Even though there are some bad bacteria in the milk, it's got many good bacteria and enzymes and also has a higher level of omega-3,'' he told The Herald-Times.
Operating the Rhodes Family Farms in Newberry for about 28 years, Rhodes said he began distributing raw milk about eight years ago. In order to avoid state law prohibiting the sale of raw milk, Rhodes offers a "cow share" program.
For $50 and an additional boarding fee, Rhodes said, about 150 Bloomington and Indianapolis residents have purchased shares in one of his 40 cows. A share entitles a shareholder to one gallon of raw milk a week.
"There were many people asking for it, because of the health benefits, so we decided to try it and it seemed to work out" Rhodes said. "Now that's where all our milk goes, is to the cow share program."
While cow share programs have not been tested in Indiana courts, the FDA views them as a murky legal area because they are not included in the legal code in most states, according to the FDA website.
While those who approve of raw milk consumption say pasteurization kills beneficial bacteria that aid in the digestion of lactose, those bacteria are generally not present in a cow's milk before it exits the udder, according to a fact sheet from Purdue Extension officials. Instead, the bacteria arise from unintentional contamination of the milk.
According to a CDC analysis, more than 1,500 people became sick from drinking raw milk or eating cheese made with raw milk between 1993 and 2006. Unpasteurized milk is 150 times more likely to cause food-borne illness and results in 13 times more hospitalizations than illnesses involving pasteurized dairy products, according to the CDC.
"The instances of people getting sick on raw milk are rare, rarer than people who have eaten many other products," Rhodes said.
Former Gov. Mitch Daniels signed a law that went into effect July 1, 2012, requiring all raw milk to be labeled "not for human consumption."
The law also required farmers interested in distributing raw milk as pet food to obtain a license from the state chemist, and directed the Indiana Board of Animal Health to further research raw milk.
The board's study recommended issuing permits, establishing minimum sanitation standards and allowing farmers to sell raw milk directly to consumers.
Based on this recommendation, state Sen. Richard Young, D-Milltown, wrote Indiana SB 513. While the bill was recommended to the Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources, it was not voted out of committee.
SB 610, which was written by state Sen. Jim Banks, R-Columbia City, would have allowed farmers to distribute unpasteurized milk to family members or nonpaying guests. The bill was referred to the Committee on Health and Provider Services, but did not progress further.
Kate Yegerlehner, owner of Swiss Connection Farm in Clay City, said consumers should have the choice to be able to purchase milk, instead of "being dictated what is safe and what is not safe for them."
Yegerlehner, 33, who was also raised on a family farm and has been drinking raw milk her entire life, sells raw milk products marketed as pet food.
"We're selling milk, pet butter, pet cottage cheese, pet buttermilk and other good things," Yegerlehner said. "What people do with it after they buy it is up to them, but that's how we are legally selling it, as pet food."
Yegerlehner said she believes raw milk's illegal status is based on scare tactics and the financial self-interest of the dairy industry.
"Raw milk is a very political issue," Yegerlehner said. "The industry is big business now, and they don't want the competition of raw milk, because it would really cut into their ability to maintain a profit, I think."
But Yegerlehner said she still worries about legislation deeming raw milk legal in select situations.
Because Young's legislation called for additional safety standards, she said small family farmers like herself could be put out of business. The regulations, she said, could require automated bottling equipment, which she said her business could not afford.
Until legislation is passed legalizing the sale of unpasteurized milk for human consumption, Yegerlehner said, she will continue drinking and selling a product marketed as pet food.
"It would be nice if people had the freedom to buy the products that they wanted, from the farmer that they wanted, without the government looking over their shoulder every time," Yegerlehner said. "But right now, that's not how it is in Indiana."