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State finds claims of raw milk’s benefits hard to swallow

By NATHAN CRABBE
Gainesville Sun staff writer
December 03. 2005
LIVE OAK – Aase Duerkes said she couldn’t get out of bed some mornings before she started drinking raw milk.
The 59-year-old Leesburg resident credits a diet of unpasteurized milk and other unprocessed foods for curing the fibromyalgia that caused her entire left side to ache. She makes a nearly three-hour trek here to buy such products, undaunted by the state’s declaration that raw milk should only be given to pets.
“I feel tons better,” she said.
She’s part of a growing movement that says pasteurization and other processing saps milk of taste and nutrition. But state regulators say unpasteurized milk threatens the health of consumers and have taken action against Live Oak farmer Dennis Stoltzfoos for touting its health benefits while selling it.
“People can be and have been sickened by raw milk,” said Terry McElroy, spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture of Consumer Services. “It harbors a significant volume of dangerous bacteria.”


The Florida Department of Health is aware of only one person in the state getting sick from raw milk and the Alachua County health department’s chief epidemiologist said she has never heard of a case of a person getting sick in the county. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports a handful of serious incidents involving raw milk, including a batch of infected raw-milk cheese in North Carolina that caused five pregnant women there to have stillborn babies
The sale of raw milk is legal in 28 states, according to the Weston A. Price Foundation, a raw-milk advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. While other states ban its sale entirely, Florida is among five states that allow it to be sold as pet food. Raw milk sold at small farms and some grocery stores in the state, including Ward’s Supermarket in Gainesville, must be labeled unsafe for human consumption.
McElroy said the department can’t stop people from drinking raw milk, but took action against Stoltzfoos after he touted its health benefits on his Web site. The state ordered his farm closed in July, declaring he didn’t have the permits and inspections needed to sell food products.
He’s been allowed to again sell milk if he instructs his customers it should only be given to their pets. Raised Amish in Pennsylvania, Stoltzfoos said he was inspired by practices on his family’s farm there. His cows are fed grass and kelp, which he says packs their milk with nutrients, and aren’t given hormones or antibiotics.
“For me, it comes down to the fact we are what we eat,” he said.
Stoltzfoos said he believes customers should be given the freedom to choose if they want to drink raw milk and is pushing for a change in regulations. Rep. Dwight Stansel, D-Wellborn, will meet with him and other farmers Dec. 12 to hear those concerns.
The debate raises questions about a process developed more than 140 years ago, when French microbiologist Louis Pasteur determined that heating milk would kill bacteria. The United States has required milk to be pasteurized since the 1920s, which now means milk is heated to 161 degrees for 15 seconds or 145 degrees for 30 minutes.
University of Florida food-science professor Ron Schmidt said even milk that initially has low levels of bacteria can grow higher levels that could be dangerous. While he said people who drink raw milk may develop immunities that prevent them from getting sick, he said it isn’t worth the risk to a child or someone who has immune deficiencies getting seriously ill after trying the product for the first time.
“You can’t as a microbiologist get on board and say you should allow the commercial sale of a product that might be dangerous,” he said.
He said he’s skeptical about claims of raw milk’s benefits, saying the loss of nutrients through pasteurization is negligible in most diets.
Other health experts also question anecdotal accounts about the benefits of raw milk that haven’t been scientifically tested. A UF expert on fibromyalgia, Dr. Roland Staud, said there’s no way to verify Duerkes’ experience of being cured of the disease without the benefit of study, but that the claim sounded “way out there.”
But raw-milk advocates insist science is on their side. Some cite work from the Weston A. Price Foundation, which was named for a Cleveland dentist who touted the benefits of a diet rich in nutrients and fats. The foundation has lobbied for changes in regulations and maintains a Web site (www.realmilk.com) that makes a litany of claims about the benefits of raw milk.
Cherry Carter, a Live Oak farmer who also writes books on nutritional anthropology, calls pasteurized milk “dead food” because the process removes beneficial nutrients and enzymes.
Carter drinks raw milk that she and her husband get from goats on their farm, saying it fights ailments ranging from chronic fatigue to leaky-gut syndrome.
“The mother’s milk has ingredients in it that allows the newborns to thrive,” she said.
Her farm sells raw goat’s milk, careful to tell customers it is only for their pets. She concedes she’s told other producers she was buying raw cow’s milk for that purpose when she knew she would be drinking it herself.
“That’s what we have to resort to, unfortunately,” she said.
At Ward’s Supermarket, raw cow’s milk is sold for $3.99 per two-liter container. The milk comes from Golden Fleece, a dairy in Lecanto that is among the handful of state producers with permits allowing them to sell the product in stores.
A sign at the store’s dairy aisle alerts customers that they have to ask an employee to get them raw milk, which is kept in a separate cooler in back.
Assistant manager Kathy Whipple said the store usually sells its entire allotment of two-dozen jugs in less than a week.
Whipple assume some customers might be drinking the milk themselves, but keeps out of it.
“It’s none of my business,” she said. “Once they buy it, it’s theirs.”
Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 352-338-3176 or crabben@gvillesun.com.
FYI: Bacteria that may be present in raw milk
# Listeria: infection can cause fever, muscle aches and sometimes nausea or diarrhea. Some infections during pregnancy lead to miscarriage or stillbirth, premature delivery or infection of the newborn.
# E. coli: infection often causes severe bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps. In some people, particularly children under 5 years old and the elderly, the infection can also cause kidney failure.
# Salmonella: most people infected develop diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps. In some cases the diarrhea may be so severe that the patient needs to be hospitalized.
# Campylobacter: infection causes diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain and fever. The diarrhea may be bloody and can be accompanied by nausea and vomiting. In people with compromised immune systems, it occasionally spreads to the bloodstream and causes a life-threatening infection.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention