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Raw emotions

Fans of unpasteurized milk support wider sales, push back against warnings

Cindy Wood hands out treats to her charges in the milking barn at Framingham’s Eastleigh Farm, among the few area dairies that sell raw milk. Cindy Wood hands out treats to her charges in the milking barn at Framingham’s Eastleigh Farm, among the few area dairies that sell raw milk. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Erica Noonan
Globe Staff / March 3, 2011

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FRAMINGHAM — The customers come into Eastleigh Farm’s modest retail store with a purpose.

The product they seek, unpasteurized — or raw — milk, is both controversial and scarce. The nearest other places that sell it are at least 45 minutes away by car, at dairy farms in Foxborough, Andover, and West Bridgewater.

Each jug — Eastleigh sells gallons for $9 and half-gallons for $5.50 — bears a warning, required by the state, on its bright yellow label alerting consumers that the contents have not been pasteurized, and stating: “Pasteurization destroys organisms that may be harmful to human health.’’ And before exiting, Eastleigh customers must sign a legal waiver agreeing to hold the farm harmless for any illness caused by drinking the raw milk.

Public health officials discourage the consumption of raw milk, saying it could cause sickness in the very young, very old, or those in frail health.

Still, the customers have arrived in increasing numbers since the farm started selling raw milk about a year ago, said Eastleigh’s owner, Doug Stephan. As of last week, his farm had 1,219 signed waivers on file, and sales of 200 to 400 gallons per week, depending on the season, he said.

Many find raw milk sweeter and creamier than pasteurized milk; some aficionados say they can determine simply by taste the change in the cows’ diet from fresh pasture grass to winter feed.

Eastleigh customer J Barr Kenny was picking up a gallon last week. The Natick resident said he prefers raw milk.

“I am rather suspicious of pasteurization,’’ said Kenny, who said he is a vegetarian and tries to consume local eggs, dairy products, and cheese when possible.

After his wife tired of soy milk, they went looking for an alternative and found what they liked at Eastleigh, he said.

Advocates of raw milk, and the 27 Massachusetts farms that sell it to the public, are looking for a boost from a proposal in the state Legislature that would loosen regulations restricting the sale of raw milk to farm properties. The bill would allow farms to deliver it to their customers and sell it at farm stands. It would not allow the sale of raw milk at supermarkets and other retail establishments.

State Senator Susan Fargo, a Lincoln Democrat and cochairwoman of the Joint Committee on Public Health, has signed on to the bill, sponsored by state Representative Anne Gobi, a Democrat from Spencer.

Fargo said she is not a raw milk enthusiast, but does want to encourage public debate over an issue that concerns local farmers.

“I have mixed feelings’’ about raw milk, Fargo said, “but I would like an opportunity to examine the issues of public health, nutrition, and the fate of small farmers fighting for survival against large agricultural business.

“This could be a way to raise the income potential of small dairy producers, if they can find a larger market.’’

State and federal agencies, however, are adamant in their opposition to raw milk. The US Food and Drug Administration, the federal Centers for Disease Control, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the state Department of Public Health have all declared that the public should not consume it.

“We believe unpasteurized milk is a dangerous product,’’ said Siobhan DeLancey, a spokeswoman for the FDA in Washington, D.C., in a telephone interview last week.

It is not safe to consume, even from small, well-run local dairy farms, she said.

“There are pathogens that are inherent in dairy,’’ DeLancey said.

Julia Hurley, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, last week said her agency has long maintained that there are “significant health risks associated with the consumption of raw milk.’’

Named for its inventor, 19th-century chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur, the process uses high heat to kill all bacteria — both healthful and dangerous — in fresh milk. In large dairy farms, many batches of milk are combined and processed together.

Supporters of raw milk say pasteurization kills enzymes, amino acids, and bacteria that are beneficial for human health, and contend well-operated dairy farms can keep milk free of dangerous bacteria without having to heat it to above 170 degrees, or even higher in some cases.

“Raw milk is the healthiest way of absorbing liquid nutrition from a bovine,’’ said Stephan, who grew up working on local dairy farms and has run Eastleigh for eight years. He has carefully selected a herd of about 60 brown Jersey and Guernsey cows, breeds known for their milk quality.

The farm spent most of 2009 battling with Framingham health officials to get permission to sell raw milk, and must submit the results of tests by an independent lab every seven to 10 days, he said.

Opponents of raw milk are ignorant of the real situation, Stephan said, based on misinformation from “big companies doing everything possible to squeeze out the little companies with ridiculous claims about how harmful raw milk is.’’

He pointed out that the last major case locally of a milk-borne illness involved pasteurized, not raw, milk. Three people died and several others were sickened in late 2007 and early 2008 after drinking milk from Whittier Farms that had become contaminated in its Shrewsbury processing plant with listeria, a bacteria that can cause food poisoning, according to the state Department of Public Health.

Federal officials say consumption of raw milk was responsible for 1,676 illnesses, 191 hospitalizations, and two deaths from 1998 through 2008, based on data reported to the Centers for Disease Control. The Atlanta-based agency found that 71 percent of all dairy-related food-borne illnesses resulted from consumption of raw milk or related products.

Raw milk can be difficult to obtain. Only 10 states permit it to be sold in retail establishments. Fifteen states — including Massachusetts — allow it to be sold only on farms, and nine states ban its sale for human consumption entirely, according to statistics collected last year by the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund.

Donald Ela, who also raises cows on his farm in West Brookfield, manages Eastleigh’s milk production.

On a recent visit during the afternoon milking session, he examined the winter hay supplies, watched a flock of wild turkeys stalking the perimeter, and closed a wide farm gate behind him.

“I don’t want to be chasing cows tonight,’’ said Ela, with a wry look at nearby Edmands Road.

Inside a barn, Eastleigh’s milker, Cindy Wood, moved through a line of two dozen cows. Each animal spent about five minutes on the milking machine per session. Consistency is one of the chief factors for good milk production, she said.

“Cows like to be fed the same thing at the same time,’’ Wood said. Eastleigh cows typically produce milk with 6 percent butterfat, more than cows living on most large factory dairy operations, the farmers said.

At Eastleigh, milk travels from the cows through sterilized stainless steel pipes into a holding tank designed to keep it at about 35 degrees for bottling.

In addition to local regulations, farms selling raw milk are subject to monthly visits from the state Department of Agriculture.

Winton Pitcoff, with the Northeast Organic Farming Association, said interest in raw milk has surged in the past few years along with the popularity of eating locally produced food. Massachusetts lags behind most other New England states in terms of marketing raw milk: Connecticut and Maine allow retail sales of raw milk, and Vermont farmers are allowed to deliver raw milk to customers.

Passage of the new legislation would give the state’s dairy farmers “an opportunity to meet a need that currently can’t be met,’’ Pitcoff said.

Stephan said he is in no hurry to take Eastleigh’s milk off the farm, even if the bill passes this year.

“I believe the closer you are to the point of production, the better the milk is going to be,’’ he said.

“I support the access to raw milk and for more people to have the ability to choose what they want. If you want to choose healthy food and milk, then you should be able to make that choice.’’

Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com.

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