Raw Deal

Idaho moves to combat illegal sales of "real" milk


In Idaho, there are two licensed raw-milk producers. And then there is the black market for raw milk.

Although the substance is legal, costly restrictions have caused it to go underground.

"We know that there's a number of backyard sells going on throughout this state," said Marv Patten, chief of the Idaho State Department of Agriculture's dairy bureau.

He offered no estimate of the number of such sales, but said there are enough for the department to take note. He hopes a new proposal under legislative review next year makes raw milk more safely available.

"It's legal in Idaho, but only under certain statutes," said Raine Irving Saunders, a Boise food activist and publisher of the Agriculture Society blog.

The feds have left such decisions up to each state. In Idaho, two specific permits are involved for farmers to sell milk: a Grade A production license, and a Grade A processing license. Small farms argue the price of the required processing equipment is cost prohibitive, leaving them out in the cold.

Patten hopes the new legislation will help those farms with fewer than three milking cows sell raw milk legally if they agree to publicized inspections, which will in turn offer more people safe alternatives to traditional, processed milk.

Milk is supposed to do a body good, but is all milk created equal? Proponents of raw milk (what they call "real" milk) promote its alleged health benefits, stemming from the fact that it is free from pasteurization, a traditional means of processing that kills unwanted bacteria, including E. coli, that can lead to severe illnesses.

However, some food activists say pasteurization kills many healthy milk ingredients that can improve human immune systems. They also say modern farm hygiene techniques can be perfectly adequate to ensure safe raw milk.

"I'm always working to educate people about the benefits of consuming it," Sanders said. "We get ours from Saint John's Organic Farm in Emmett."

Saint John's has about 100 milking cows, steers and calves roaming 160 acres on a farm that has been in the family for about 70 years, according to owner Peter Dill. He said his raw milk is high in vitamin E, omega 3 and other important vitamins and enzymes that are depleted when farmers feed grain and pasteurize milk.

"People have drunk raw milk for centuries," Dill said. "The consumers need to be able to make their own decision."

His farm is one of two that earned the permits to sell raw milk at the retail level in Idaho this past year. The farm is clearly providing consumers more decision-making power, but its milk is still only offered to members of its "raw milk co-op," which requires dues to enjoy the milk mustache.

Boise Weekly contacted Boise Co-op to ask the regional purveyor of organics if it was interested in providing raw milk.

"We would love to be able to sell it," said manager Ken Kavanagh. "As long as it's inspected by the state."

Dill said that the permits Saint John's has require the state agriculture department to perform routine, quarterly inspections of his milk for pathogens, and farm equipment for proper operation. Regardless, other hidden costs must be addressed.

"I think the Boise Co-op would like to have our milk, but it is just not financially feasible at this time--maybe in the future," Dill said.

He explained the high cost was due to a combination of things, including packaging. Dill is optimistic but realistic about the future of raw milk: "I think raw-milk consumers are intelligent and zealous, but they are probably few."