Saturday, December 31, 2005
By DEAN BAKER, Columbian staff writer
FERN PRAIRIE – Lorrie Conway tugged on the udder of 3-year-old Vashon, one of her 18 Nubian goats, and squirted her milk into a stainless steel bucket at Conway Family Farm near Livingston Mountain.
Conway, 40, runs one of only seven Washington dairies licensed to sell raw milk. As she worked, she reflected on how Washington Department of Agriculture inspectors have helped her since she got her license four months ago to sell milk raw, or milk without pasteurization.
“Having a license just raises the bar,” said Conway, who is an accountant as well as a boutique farmer and the mother of two teen daughters.
She’s been milking goats, drinking raw goat’s milk and eating goat meat since she was 10 years old, growing up in the 1970s on a cattle ranch at Trout Lake below Mount Adams.
“Having a license adds an extra pair of eyes to make sure you are doing everything right,” she said.
She sells her raw goat’s milk in its natural state without pasteurizing it, which would involve heating it to 161.5 degrees Fahrenheit and holding it at that temperature for at least 15 seconds to kill pathogens including bacteria, viruses, protozoa, molds and yeasts. She said her raw goat’s milk is as safe as raw vegetables or meat purchased in any Washington grocery store.
Inspectors say raw milk is fit for humans, but they don’t use the word “pure” when discussing it. They say licensed raw milk is inherently hazardous because it isn’t pasteurized.
The agriculture department’s food safety manager, Claudia Coles, says licensed raw milk is tested monthly, licensed milking goats or cows are tested for diseases to make sure they are free of tuberculosis and brucellosis, and facilities are inspected at least every quarter to make sure they are immaculate.
Coles cautions that clean raw milk is “potentially hazardous,” just as are ready-to-eat foods, such as sandwiches, salads and smoked salmon. All those foods need equal extra care and inspections, Coles said. Unpasteurized milk is always a risk because it is an ideal medium for the growth of pathogens, she said. The risk can be minimized when the milk is pasteurized, she said. But raw milk that is licensed and passes state inspections is viewed as safe for human consumption, she said.
Raw milk hazard
Controversy over the sale of raw milk arose on Dec. 14 after 18 people, 15 of them ages 1 to 13, got sick in Washington and Oregon after consuming raw cow milk from Dee Creek Farm near Woodland.
Unlike Conway’s licensed dairy, which is subject to state oversight, Dee Creek Farm had no state license to sell raw milk, and so it wasn’t inspected.
Two children who got sick from Dee Creek milk were reported still hospitalized in fair condition Friday, and their conditions were said to be improving.
Clark County and state health officials have been testing and cross-testing Dee Creek milk samples and E. coli victims to determine the scientific link between the milk and the bacteria. Tests so far confirm seven have the 0157:H7 E. coli strain, which is safe for cows but dangerous in people. Further tests are under way, said Jason Kelly, a state agriculture department spokesman. A public report will be made when the lab report is complete, said Don Strick, a spokesman for the Clark County Health Department.
State inspectors wouldn’t say if they would drink raw cow or goat milk from licensed dairies. The state’s official position is that raw milk can be a health hazard, especially to children, the elderly or those with compromised immune systems. Raw milk must carry a warning label, much as cigarettes packs do.
By law, the label must read: “WARNING: This product has not been pasteurized and may contain harmful bacteria. Pregnant women, children, the elderly and persons with lowered resistance to disease have the highest risk of harm from use of this product.”
Conway gets high marks for cleanliness from customers who come 10 miles and more out into the woods from Camas to buy the milk right out of Conway’s milking parlor.
She scours the goats’ udders as well as her buckets, sinks and funnels with disinfectant; strains and bottles the milk quickly in half-gallon plastic jugs; caps it by hand; and then chills it, as required, to under 40 degrees Fahrenheit in less than an hour.
No ill effects
No one has ever gotten sick from her milk, she said.
With the help of her husband, Shaun, and their daughters, Ashley, 18, and Amber, 16, Conway usually spends an hour or two a day tending to the herd, mostly Nubians. The Conways also raise Border Leicester sheep, blueberries and lavender on their 5-acre farm. It’s been their home for 15 years.
Most days, they milk two to six goats at their farm at 32116 N.E. Dial Road, Camas. They are the only licensed dairy in Clark County that sells milk raw to the public. They charge $3.50 a half-gallon and have 50 customers around the area. Each goat gives a gallon to a gallon and half a day, giving the Conways just a little supplementary income: sales of 1 gallon to 12 gallons a day.
Goats aren’t the family’s mainstay. Lorrie Conway is a full-time, self-employed accountant, carrying books for several nonprofit agencies and for-profit businesses. Shaun Conway works for a Portland trucking firm. Ashley is studying agriculture at Washington State University and plans to become a veterinarian. Amber is a student at Camas High School.
Lorrie and Shaun have been raising goats for 12 years. Until August, when they got their license, the Conways threw a lot of milk away and kept their sheep and goats mainly for showing at up to 15 shows a year around Oregon and Washington.
Now, since the state changed its rules to allow hand-capping of milk jugs instead of mechanical capping, they can afford to get a license (at $55 a year) and sell raw goat’s milk. They’d pasteurize their milk, too, Lorrie said, except that a pasteurizing machine costs $13,000, a bit steep for her operation, which produces $7 to $84 a day in revenue.
Added to coffee Thursday, Conway’s raw goat’s milk tasted sweet and had no ill effects on folks around Conway’s kitchen table.
Buying raw goat’s milk from the Conways works well, her customers say, for folks who can’t tolerate cow’s milk, for people who are concerned about issues such as the use of hormones given to cows, and for those who believe pasteurization makes milk harder to digest.
“There are health benefits in the (raw goat’s) milk,” said Annette Bartausky of Hazel Dell, who buys 2 gallons of Conway milk a week. “I’m after the enzymes in it. I have digestive problems, and my son is 15 and doesn’t do well on cow’s milk or pasteurized milk. He does great on raw goat’s milk, much better than pasteurized. I make yogurt, too. I did rethink everything after the E. coli scare, but Lorrie does over and above what she needs to do, and we pick it up on her farm. We’re really happy with it.”
Dean Baker writes about agriculture. Reach him at 360-759-8009 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Should sales of raw milk from licensed dairies be lawful?
* On one side:
Dairy owners, their customers and state inspectors say raw milk from cows and goats is fit for human consumption as long as 311 pages of state regulations are followed.
* On another side:
Eighteen people became ill with E. coli after consuming raw cow’s milk from Dee Creek Farm, an unlicensed Woodland dairy. The state says there’s always a risk to those who consume raw milk. They say it can contain such pathogens as staphylococcus, campylobacter, salmonella, E.coli, listeria and tuberculosis.
* How to get involved:
Make your views known to your state senator or representative because the topic is likely to be debated during the next session of the state Legislature.