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Raw Milk Scare Pits Health Officials Against Passionate Consumers

July 08, 2011|By Michelle Theriault Boots | Channel 2 News
Michelle Theriault Boots (KTUU-DT)

POINT MACKENZIE, Alaska — A controversial glass of milk sits on the countertop of Galen Yoder’s kitchen at the Byers Farm in Point MacKenzie -- sweet, creamy, frothy and snow-white. The milk is raw and unpasteurized, and it comes directly from the cows browsing grass in fields beyond the dining-room window.

To advocates, this is “real milk” -- fresh, natural and unadulterated, the way milk is supposed to be.

To health officials, it’s a perfect breeding ground for dangerous bacteria, and the culprit behind a recent outbreak of illness.

In Alaska and more than 20 other states the commercial sale of unpasteurized milk is illegal, but a loophole lets hundreds of consumers here get the milk anyway. A cow-share program allows people to purchase a “share” of a cow at the farm, which entitles them to a few gallons of milk per week.

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services says milk from the Byers Farm has sickened at least four people, and possibly many more with a dangerous strain of bacteria. Raw milk, they say, is inherently dangerous.


“People should consume pasteurized milk,” said state epidemiologist Joe McLaughlin. “If they choose to consume raw milk, they need to be aware of the risks.”

Meanwhile, as news of the outbreak spreads, hundreds of Alaska raw milk consumers are mobilizing in email groups and even consulting with lawyers in response to what they see as a threat to their raw milk, and their dietary choices. All of this has put this farm at the center of a controversy that has pitted Alaska public health officials against passionate consumers who see raw milk as an issue of personal freedom.

The Byers Farm, a tidy, bucolic spread of land with a view of Mount Susitna, is owned by Gareth Byers, who lives in Sterling. The herd of about 150 dairy cows mostly produces milk that is sent to Matanuska Creamery for pasteurization and commercial sale.

Yoder, a Mennonite who grew up on dairy farms and has been drinking raw milk all his life, has managed the farm for the past year. He considers it a blessing to live simply here with his family, waking at 3:30 a.m. for farm chores and participating in his church community in the Mat-Su Valley.

The cow-share program makes up about 20 percent of the farm’s business, and Yoder says the owner sees it more as a public service for eager consumers than a moneymaker.

The trouble began in May and June, when DHSS says four people aged between 1 and 81 who drank raw milk from the farm became ill with a serious gastrointestinal illness caused by campylobacter bacteria. After a series of follow-up tests conducted at the farm, the department determined the same strain of bacteria was present in cow manure, which they say definitively links the farm to the outbreak.

State epidemiologist Joe McLaughlin suspects 12 more cases of illness are linked to raw milk, and possibly may more than have gone unreported. Some batches could be contaminated with the bacteria, some not, he said.

“We really think this is the tip of the iceberg,” McLaughlin said.

He cautions that raw milk is an “ideal breeding ground” for bacteria, and that illness caused by the milk can be serious: Some cases of campylobacter can lead to complications that include a form of arthritis and even paralysis.

Tracy Robertson, an Anchorage mother of six, is willing to take that risk. She and her family go through about four gallons of raw milk from the Byers Farm per week, plus two quarts of cream. They use it for everything from morning café au laits to homemade yogurt, soup base and a whipped topping for chocolate milk or berries.

When the family adopted daughter Ruby several years ago, Robertson put her on a raw-milk formula adapted from a whole-foods cookbook. The girl’s diaperrash disappeared and her hair, skin and even demeanor improved, Robertson said.

“The whole heat process of pasteurization is damaging,” Robertson said. “When you cook foods they become less and less nutritious. Milk is the same way.”

She says she’d rather expose her family to the risks of raw milk than store-bought milk, which she worries could be sourced from cows fedhormones, genetically-modified corn, soy or animal byproducts.

“My mentality is that I am much more accepting of naturally occurring bacteria,” Robertson said. “Life is full of risk.”

For Carly Wier, who works at an Anchorage nonprofit, raw milk was initially a way to rely on a local food system. She and her husband drink it straight, use it in soups and add it to smoothies and coffee.

“We’re so isolated up here,” she said. “When I can find a good source of local protein that I can rely on through winter and summer, I’m excited to have that raw milk.” Articles