Yes, milk. Raw, unpasteurized milk. To supply a small but growing market among health-conscious city and suburban dwellers for milk taken straight from the udder, Hebron was dealing the stuff on behalf of a farming cooperative he runs in southwestern Michigan. An undercover agricultural investigator had infiltrated the co-op as part of a sting operation that resulted in the seizure of $7,000 worth of fresh-food items, including 35 lbs. of raw butter, 29 qt. of cream and all those gallons of the suspicious white liquid. Although Hebron's home office was searched and his computer seized, no charges have been filed. "When they tested the milk, they couldn't find any problems with it," says Hebron. "It seems like they're just looking for some way to shut us down."
People have been drinking raw milk for a long time, of course at least since sheep and goats were domesticated in the 8th or 9th century B.C. Raw milk is rich in protein and fat, and milk from cows became a staple of the American diet in colonial times. When milk leaves the animal, however, it can also contain any number of pathogens, which is why most doctors consider pasteurization subjecting milk to a short burst of heat followed by rapid cooling one of the great public-health success stories of the 20th century. By eliminating most of the pathogens that cause disease, including E. coli, salmonella and listeria, they say, pasteurization has helped lower infectious-disease rates in the U.S. more than 90% over the past century.
Raw-milk enthusiasts have a different perspective. They insist that along with the bad pathogens, heat-treating milk destroys beneficial bacteria, proteins and enzymes that aid in digestion. Some people with a history of digestive-tract problems, such as Crohn's disease, swear by the curative powers of unpasteurized milk. Others praise its nutritional value and its ability to strengthen the immune system. "I have seen so many of my patients recover their health with raw milk that I perceive this as one of the most profoundly healthy foods you can consume," says Dr. Joseph Mercola, an osteopathic physician and author who rails against the medical establishment on his website, mercola.com.
You might think raw milk would be a tough sell after the Taco Bell and bagged-spinach E. coli scares. After all, even the healthiest grass-fed cows tromp around in mud and fecal matter and carry all manner of bacteria with them into the milking parlor. Between 1990 and 2004, U.S. health authorities traced 168 disease outbreaks to dairy products; nearly a third were linked to unpasteurized items, according to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. But in fact, demand for raw milk seems to be rising faster than cream in an unhomogenized gallon jug. Hebron's dairy co-op has no shortage of customers willing to pay a premium for milk that hasn't been processed. A California dairy producer estimates that 100,000 Californians drink raw milk every week.
All of which has created a simmering problem for health officials. While the U.S. has no laws against gulping milk straight from cows, the government's stance on controlling the sale of raw milk is far murkier. The Food and Drug Administration, which recently determined that it's safe to drink the milk of cloned cows, takes a tougher stand on unprocessed milk. It banned interstate sales of raw milk 20 years ago but left it up to individual states to decide what to do about commerce within their borders. The result is a hodgepodge of conflicting rules and loopholes big enough to drive a milk truck through. While 23 states, including Michigan, officially prohibit raw-milk sales for human consumption, the rest allow money to exchange hands under certain conditions. In California, raw dairy products are available in grocery stores, while Illinois consumers can buy them directly from farms if they bring their own containers. An increasingly popular arrangement designed to circumvent state restrictions is a so-called herd-sharing program, like Hebron's, which requires members to, in effect, lease a portion of a cow for $20 a year, in his case and sign an agreement opposing "all governmental standards for food, preparation, storage and safety." The $6.25-per-gal. charge is technically not a sale but compensation to cover board and transport costs.
Some raw advocates believe it's the emergence of these cow-sharing schemes in the past few years that has prompted state agriculture officials to crack down. Columbus, Ohio, attorney David G. Cox says he has represented six raw-dairy producers over the past year for alleged illegal sales, some of whom have been in business for decades without incident. "There seems to be an orchestrated effort to dry up the supply," he says. "I suspect that conventional dairy producers are concerned that if [raw milk] were widely available and people got sick, all milk would get a bad name and the whole industry would suffer."
What raw milk fans most resent is stepped-up efforts to crack down on a personal choice that wasn't doing anyone else any harm. "There are 65,000 child-porn websites," asks indignant co-op member Nancy Sanders, a pediatric nurse and mother of five from Des Plaines, Ill. "Why doesn't the government go after those?"
Meanwhile, farmer Hebron says he won't be spooked by Michigan authorities. Back in business a week after his goods were seized, he's become a cause celebre of the raw movement. After an Ann Arbor retailer he worked with was served a cease-and-desist order, a co-op member offered her nearby home as a new pickup site. Meanwhile, some of Hebron's clients in Michigan and Illinois have been flooding the fax machines of state agriculture officials to protest the treatment of the mild-mannered dairyman. In Feburary, the Amish farmer who supplies Hebron's co-op with raw milk received a warning letter from the FDA about potential interstate commerce violations. Hebron met with federal officials in Detroit on March 6th to defend the legality of herd-sharing arrangments, and is adamant about continuing his milk runs.
Recently, Hebron parked his truck in front of a North Side Chicago health-food store and began carrying crates filled with brown eggs and pasture-raised beef and pork into the shop for co-op members. He had to distribute the milk, however, out of the back of his truck a rule the store's owner, Paula Campanio, reluctantly imposed after the raid. "I'm trying to be discreet," she says. "When I see a police car go by, I'm convinced they're coming for me." Demand from her customers for the milk is strong enough that she's willing to take the risk, but she's hoping that keeping the stuff out of her premises will make her a tad less culpable. Got raw milk? Shhhhh.