Proponents of drinking raw milk say it’s full of vitamins and soothes asthma and other ailments, but only farmers who own their own cows can drink the unpasteurized white beverage in Ohio.
So raw milk fans have turned to “herd share” agreements that allow them to buy portions of a farmer’s herd and get dairy products.
Now the Ohio Department of Agriculture is investigating these arrangements, which an agriculture official says appear to take advantage of a legal loophole.
Health officials say proponents’ claims about raw milk are unfounded, and selling it is illegal because illness-causing bacteria such as E. coli can get into unpasteurized milk.
The agriculture department began investigating a herd share arrangement in Darke County in western Ohio after a 63-year-old Springfield man and a 4-year-old Kettering boy became ill with campylobacter infections in January. The two had consumed raw milk from a farm run by Paul and Carol Schmitmeyer.
Milk from the dairy tested negative for the bacteria, which can cause diarrhea, cramping and abdominal pain.
About 160 people own shares of the Schmitmeyer farm near Versailles. Shareholders say their ownership gives them legal access to the milk, but they fear the investigation will lead the agriculture department to take away the farm’s license.
“I want to be able to have the choice to eat the most nourishing food I can find for me and my family,” said Susan Warner, a shareholder who lives in Montgomery County. “I’ll do anything that I have to get that food.”
Herd share agreements exist throughout the state. Christina Trecaso, who lives in Summit County in northeast Ohio, said she oversees a network that supplies raw milk to more than 120 families in the area.
“We know what we want,” said Trecaso, 36. “And there are ways to get it.”
Trecaso is involved in the Raw Milk Producers Association, which was formed by 10 Ohio dairy farmers. An estimated 1,000 families have purchased herd shares to receive raw milk and other dairy products.
LeeAnne Mizer, the agriculture department’s spokeswoman, says Ohio’s law does not govern herd shares specifically.
“There is no defined part of the law that talks about herd sharing. It’s a gray area,” she said. “But it seems like a way to get around the raw milk law.”
Mizer declined to discuss the details of the investigation of the Schmitmeyer farm, but she said under the herd share agreement, a farmer would have to prove that the milk the shareholder is drinking came from the cow the person invested in.
But Paul Schmitmeyer says shareholders are buying part of the entire herd, not one cow. He said the state should develop a system to allow farmers to be licensed to sell raw milk that would be tested by the state.
Clean, modern farms produce milk that’s safe to drink, Schmitmeyer said. Pasteurization was needed a century ago when farms were dirty, he said.
“That was a different time and a different place,” he said. “If you would read half of the e-mails I have received, half of the testimonials, you would know something has to change.”
Mizer said the state does not have the resources to test every dairy farm.
Ohio is one of 23 states that ban the sale of raw milk. Ohio’s law, which went into effect in 1997, allowed only farms that had been selling raw milk before 1965 to continue. In 2003, the last farm grandfathered in under the law gave up its license after a salmonella outbreak that was linked to the dairy.
State Rep. Arlene Setzer, a Vandalia Republican, is preparing legislation that would allow consumers to buy raw milk.