By Tara Bannow
The day that Jeff Severson learned the Oregon Department of Agriculture would no longer enforce a ban on raw milk advertising, he rounded up some plywood and got to work painting over and over again: “Raw milk, Hope Springs Dairy, 541-241-6183.”
For about a year now, Severson and his wife, Lysa, have been processing and selling cow’s and goat’s milk out of a long, converted shipping container on the northern outskirts of Bend. Drinking unpasteurized milk is a practice the couple believes strongly in, so much so that Jeff now devotes himself full time to the family business. They’ve raised goats for five years, and each of their three young daughters grew up drinking raw goat’s milk.
“We’ve never had one issue with any of them,” Jeff Severson said.
Small raw milk producers like the Seversons recently got a leg up from the ODA. The ODA is also requesting that the Legislature do away with its ban on raw milk advertising, one of several restrictions Oregon law places on the production and sale of raw milk due to concerns it can contain harmful bacteria or viruses. The changes on the ODA’s part aren’t by choice; they’re stipulations of a settlement the department reached in February with a McMinnville milk producer who sued the agency, arguing the ban infringed on her business.
“It really was an issue of free speech; we recognized that,” said ODA spokesman Bruce Pokarney. “And certainly anybody has the right to say what they want about advertising their products, whatever way they want to do that. We’re not going to distinguish between one or the other.”
The Virginia-based Institute for Justice supported the lawsuit filed by Christine Anderson, who said a state inspector told her it was against the law to list milk prices on her website, calling it advertising.
Travis Kalebaugh, who runs Kalebaugh Family Farm with his wife, Heidi, on the northwest border of Bend, said he’s had it with all the regulations, too.
“It’s crazy to me one of the healthiest products on the Earth is fought tooth and nail,” he said. “There are places where they have raids on milk farms. You would have thought they were growing pot.”
But even with the newfound freedom, the demand for raw milk is so strong that some producers will choose not to advertise.
That’s the case for Kalebaugh, who said he’s almost always got a waiting list and often performs a juggling act to have enough milk for all of his customers and his family.
“It’s a high-demand product here in Central Oregon,” he said. “Word of mouth works better than anything.”
Public health warnings
As the popularity of raw milk grows, so does the number of warnings from public health experts, who say it’s dangerous because it can contain bacteria, parasites and viruses. Pasteurization, the process of heating milk hot and long enough to kill potentially harmful bacteria, became routine in the U.S. in the 1920s, leading to a dramatic decline in illnesses transmitted through milk, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC estimates that between 1998 and 2011, 2,384 people got sick in the U.S. from drinking raw milk. Of those, 284 were hospitalized and two died. Most of the illnesses were caused by the intestinal bacteria E. coli, campylobacter, salmonella or listeria.
Here in Oregon, the subject took the spotlight in April 2012, when raw milk from a farm in Wilsonville tested positive for E. coli and sickened nearly 20 people. Four children were hospitalized with acute kidney failure.
Emilio DeBess, state public health veterinarian for the Oregon Health Authority, said if more Oregonians learn about raw milk through seeing advertisements, it’s possible not all will do the appropriate research before making the switch.
“You should be scientific about it,” he said. “You shouldn’t just hear from somebody else, ‘My kids drink it and they never got sick. Your kids could drink it, too,’ because not everybody’s the same.”
Additionally, Martin Bucknavage, senior food safety extension associate at Penn State University, said kids who’ve grown up drinking raw milk likely have been exposed to doses of bacteria over time that didn’t necessarily make them very sick, but caused them to develop an immunity to such pathogens.
“When you start to sell it, you’re giving it to people that may have not had the exposure to certain pathogens,” he said. “If they do get exposed to a pretty virulent strain of it, there’s just less chance that you’re going to be able to successfully fight that back.”
Kids and people with compromised immune systems are especially vulnerable to bacteria, parasites and viruses that can be present in raw milk, DeBess said. Giardia and cryptosporidium are two common parasites found in cattle, he said. If you think about the anatomy of a cow, excrement can easily come into contact with the udder when it falls to the ground, DeBess said. Cleaning the cow’s udder doesn’t always solve the problem, he said.
Kalebaugh, whose dairy has four cows, said that although he doesn’t test his milk for bacteria or other harmful organisms, he washes his cows thoroughly before milking them, and he can see when something doesn’t look right. Bad milk, for example, might have green stuff floating in it, he said.
“I’ve pitched a whole evening’s worth of milk because I’ve seen something I didn’t like,” Kalebaugh said. “That kind of hurts to pitch half your day’s worth of milk, but I’ll do it.”
DeBess countered that you wouldn’t be able to see bacteria in the milk.
“If you understand basic microbiology, you understand the bacteria is microscopic,” he said, “so you need a very powerful microscope to see them.”
Billie Johnson, who owns Windy Acres Dairy Farm in Prineville, said harmful pathogens come from the cow’s manure, and she, like many farmers, milks the cows using a closed milking system, meaning a hose is placed over the teats, and the milk is never exposed during the milking process.
Johnson milks 22 cows on her farm, and she said word of mouth is strong enough that she doesn’t need to do any formal advertising.
Still, farmers like Kalebaugh and Severson say pasteurization strips milk of its nutritional value.
“Milk is not just an inactive thing; it’s alive,” Kalebaugh said. “It’s full of live antibodies; it’s full of live everything, and the pasteurization process kills it. That’s the point of pasteurization is to kill anything that’s in the milk. But it kills the milk, too.”
Likewise, Severson said pasteurization cooks off the enzymes that store milk’s nutritional value. Lysa Severson drank raw milk throughout her pregnancies, and their girls are healthy and resilient, Jeff Severson said.
Severson also doesn’t test his milk for bacteria or other contaminants. To do so, he said, he’d have to send it out and wait three days for results. The only thing the milk has the potential to become contaminated with is mastitis, an infection of the udder tissue, Lysa Severson said. But even then, she and her husband would see the infected udder and wouldn’t use that cow’s milk.
“It’s one of those things that we’re really, really, really, really careful,” she said.
Raw milk restrictions
Even with the advertising ban lifted, the state still imposes restrictions on raw milk producers. They can’t sell directly to customers, for example. Rather, customers must buy a portion of a cow, a practice called herdsharing. Raw milk producers are not regulated in Oregon, which has banned the direct sale of raw milk since 1999.
Kalebaugh, the Seversons and Johnson — either in conversation or on their websites — point to research performed by the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes nutrient-dense foods. The foundation has said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the CDC are wrong to restrict the sale of raw milk and do not have the public’s interest in mind.
Such government skepticism is common among those who favor raw milk and reject the idea of potential harms.
Despite their beliefs, DeBess said, he simply stresses that people look into the science rather than simply talking to someone about raw milk. To do otherwise would be just as dangerous as eating raw hamburger or chicken, he said.
“It’s like Russian roulette,” DeBess said. “Who’s going to get the contaminated component of that milk and get sick?”
— Reporter: 541-383-0304,