The raw deal: in search of Missoula's black-market milk 

On any given day, Missoulians can walk into a specialty pet food store and buy something they'd otherwise have to obtain on the black market: raw, unpasteurized milk. Sold frozen, it's sometimes mixed with honey, and it can't be legally sold for human consumption in Montana.

I don't own a dog, but I was still able to walk out of a local store last week with a pint of raw goat's milk. After the clerk casually mentioned the supposed health benefits of raw milk, I told her I was going to buy some—emphasizing the air quotes"for my dog." In response, she told me to let it thaw for three hours at room temperature, and said I should shake it up before drinking to break up the chunks. The pint cost me six dollars.

Depending on whom you ask, raw milk is either a cure-all or a threat to public health. Proponents argue that it's full of healthy bacteria, and that drinking it is good for a litany of ailments, including asthma and irritable bowel syndrome. Health officials say it's impossible to know if a given batch is safe, making regulation difficult.

Regardless, supporters will go to great lengths to obtain it.

Hot Springs meat and dairy farmer David Max, 43, proprietor of the Clark Fork Market's Valhalla Pork and Poutine, struggled with irritable bowel syndrome and indigestion as a child (he describes his younger self as a "fart machine"). The difference once he started drinking raw milk more than a decade ago, he says, was like night and day. Since he had trouble finding a consistent source of raw milk from area farmers, he and his wife started raising dairy goats 10 years ago. They believed it would strengthen their children's immune systems. Now, they rarely get sick for more than a day at a time, which Max attributes largely to their diets.

What Max does is perfectly legal. Since he owns the goats, there's nothing stopping him from drinking their milk, even if it's unpasteurized.

Problems arise only when raw milk is sold for human consumption. Montanans have lobbied the Legislature to legalize the sale of raw milk at least since 2009. They've been unsuccessful each session, leaving raw milk drinkers to seek their supplies either from friendly farmers or inattentive pet stores.

"There's a big underground market," says Nancy Ballance, a Republican lawmaker from Hamilton who sponsored House Bill 325, a raw milk legalization bill, this past session. Ballance says the legal sale of raw milk would allow the Department of Public Health and Human Services to better regulate the standards of production.

click to enlarge Raw milk can’t be legally sold for human consumption, but proponents find ways to get their fix.
  • Raw milk can’t be legally sold for human consumption, but proponents find ways to get their fix.

Laura Ginsburg, owner of Golden Yoke Creamery in St. Ignatius, describes herself as a supporter of common-sense raw milk legalization. She has routinely opposed raw milk bills for allowing producers too much leeway. Ginsburg would like to see limits on how much milk can be sold in a given day, as well as exhaustive record-keeping of sales and mandatory batch testing.

Ginsburg bases her beliefs on Vermont's raw milk statutes, whereby farmers are required to keep daily samples of milk so that if an outbreak occurs, officials can trace which batch was infected. Keeping sales records allows consumers who may have purchased a bad batch to be informed of the danger.

But even with such measures, health officials still have major reservations. The Food and Drug Administration says raw milk can contain everything from e.coli to listeria, and that consuming it can cause vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain. Those symptoms are even more dangerous for pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems.

Alisha Johnson, an environmental health specialist with the Missoula County Health Department, says raw milk as currently produced is too dangerous to be sold safely. She says foodborne illness decreased dramatically after the FDA mandated pasteurization of milk, and that states that have legalized raw milk have seen a quadrupling of milk-borne illness from drinking it. (Farm-to-consumer sale of raw milk is legal in 11 states, according to the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund.)

Batches that look clean to the naked eye may still be full of contaminants, and even testing may not be a sufficient safeguard, Johnson says. Contaminants that aren't present in one raw milk sample might be present in another. As for the benefits, Johnson says that most evidence of raw milk's claimed benefits isn't rooted in science. She says there is little difference in vitamin and mineral content, and that there aren't enough probiotics in raw milk to justify drinking it.

Health concerns aside, the likelihood of getting in trouble for buying and consuming raw milk is low. Johnson says health officials aren't even necessarily targeting black market sellers. Usually, if they're identified, they'll just be asked to stop. And with plenty of vocal advocates, supporters of legalization think that the day they can legally obtain a pint of raw milk at the grocery store is coming soon.

"With all the understanding of raw foods and the health push there, I think we're going to see it," Ballance says. "It's just a matter of time."

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