There has been growth in the number of raw milk suppliers in Pennsylvania despite what product advocates see as a publicity campaign designed to discourage its purchase and consumption.
As of mid-August, Pennsylvania had 160 suppliers under permit or about double the amount from eight to 10 years ago, said Lydia Johnson, director of food safety for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
“You have the whole spectrum all the way up to The Family Cow, the largest raw milk purveyor in the state,” she said.
The state agency in early August advised the public to dispose of raw milk purchased from the Chambersburg-area farm after samples collected July 29 from The Family Cow tested positive for campylobacter, a bacteria known to cause gastroenteritis. The Department of Agriculture has yet to give the business the greenlight to again sell raw milk.
The Family Cow sells raw milk packaged in plastic half gallon, quart and pint containers out of its on-farm retail store at 3854 Olde Scotland Road. The company’s raw milk is also sold in stores near Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, in the Lehigh Valley and throughout the Midstate.
Product advocates believe raw milk is getting an undeserved bad reputation by government and media.
“It’s all a bunch of hype, and people believe it,” said Emanuel Smucker, who sells raw milk produced on his farm near Millerstown, Perry County. He said he believes the government wants to outlaw raw milk and that there are powerful corporations behind the negative publicity.
“Raw milk is being unfairly crucified,” said Melanie Dietrich Cochran, co-owner of the Keswick Creamery in Hopewell Township, which makes cheese from raw milk. She said more people have died from listeria in cantaloupe than bacterial contamination in raw milk.
Hannah Smith-Brubaker is executive vice president of the Pennsylvania Farmers Union, an advocacy group for family farms. She said the Food and Drug Administration “has it out” for raw milk and does not support its sale to consumers.
However, in Pennsylvania, the current secretary of agriculture, George Greig, grew up on a dairy farm and supports the sale by permit of raw milk, Smith-Brubaker said.
“It is an inherently safe product,” she said. “Just like anything else, if not handled right, it has the potential of not being safe.”
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Cochran said that while consumers buy chicken and hamburger raw, those food products do not carry the same kind of warning labels as raw milk. Part of the responsibility for food product safety has to rest with the consumer and how a product is transported and stored after purchase, Cochran said.
The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau prefers not to take sides, but urges consumers to educate themselves on issues surrounding raw milk consumption, said Mark O’Neill, director of media and strategic communications for the statewide advocacy group run by farmers.
“People have gotten sick,” said O’Neill, adding that authorities have tracked some cases back to the sale of raw milk.
The Centers for Disease Control has research that shows the likelihood of illness and hospitalization is greater with raw milk compared to pasteurized dairy products, O’Neill said.
“It is a consumer’s choice,” he said. “Make sure you find out as much as you can about it.”
Cochran said there is greater demand for raw milk from customers who desire a food product that is less-processed and contains enzymes and “good” bacteria beneficial for digestive health. Both of these naturally occurring components are destroyed when raw milk is heated during pasteurization.
“In today’s world, people have been taught that skim milk is better than whole milk,” Smucker said. “Yet the cream in the milk is what helps you body digest the lactose.”
When milk is processed, much of the butter fat is removed to create the skim milk customers are drinking, Smucker said. He said he believes it diminishes the taste when compared to raw milk.
What’s more in large-scale industrial operations, the cows are often injected with hormones that boost production, but this produces milk that is unfit to drink without pasteurization, Smucker said.
He advertises his raw milk as being from grass-fed cows to promote what he called a traditional style of dairy farming where the animals are left to pasture instead of being kept inside.
“It makes for a healthy and happy cow,” said Smucker, who said he believes the difference is reflected in the taste and quality of raw milk compared to pasteurized milk.