Young and Hungry

Lactose Intolerant

Lactose Intolerant: The FDA’s War on Raw Milk Comes to D.C.

The SUV glides to a halt in front of the buttery white brick Capitol Hill row house. Liz Reitzig gets out and quickly makes her way across the street. There’s a lone woman in front of the two-story structure, arms crossed over her chest. Reitzig talks to her for a moment, then walks through a side gate and slips behind the house, out of view of prying eyes. Reitzig is here for a substance that could unleash a squad of armed federal agents. But the pregnant mother of four doesn’t care. She yanks open one of the four coolers out back and smiles. Everything is there as promised.

It’s unmarked, but there’s no mistaking it: milk.

Well, sort of. The stuff in the familiar plastic jugs Reitzig takes home isn’t like what you might buy at CVS. This is raw milk, which is to say, unpasteurized. Nearly all of the dairy sold in the United States uses a heat treatment to extend shelf life and kill potentially harmful microorganisms–E. coli, listeria, salmonella. But in this age of science-skepticism, pasteurization has earned its share of detractors, folks who believe the process strips milk of important nutrients. Reitzig says she has another reason for buying raw: She likes the taste. Pasteurized milk “tastes metallic and diluted,” she says. “I try to avoid it as much as possible.” By contrast, raw milk has a rich, butterfat quality that lingers on your tongue.

There’s just one problem: In the District and Maryland, it’s illegal to sell the stuff.

Like any other sort of prohibition, though, the ban on raw milk hasn’t stopped the trade so much as driven it into a gray zone. Reitzig is one of the two main organizers of a local food cooperative, Grassfed on the Hill, which boasts several hundred members. She maintains that while buying raw milk may be forbidden in D.C., the stuff in the cooler was actually purchased by the group in Pennsylvania and transported to the District for its shared use—something that’s perfectly legal. While Grassfed on the Hill jointly buys other natural foods, she says, raw milk is what brings the most enthusiasm. “They all want it,” she says. “They’re begging for it.”

Melanie Sunukjian, a stay-at-home mom from Capitol Hill, is one of them. She became a raw milk convert when she discovered her daughter had a gluten allergy and she herself developed digestive issues. (Many supporters of untreated milk believe that it can help cure digestive tract conditions.) Both mother and daughter also discovered they had a taste for it. “I talk about it the way someone would talk about wine,” she says. “It has an earthy undertone and grassy notes.”

At least once a week, Reitzig, Sunukjian, and their fellow raw milk devotees go to one of 16 different pickup locations around the District to get pre-placed orders of fresh raw milk, as well as other raw dairy products—cream, cheeses, butter, and yogurt. Members say that for the past five years, they’ve gotten the untreated goodies from a single Amish dairy farmer, Dan Allgyer of Rainbow Acres Farm in Kinzers, Pa.

Lactose Intolerant: The FDA’s War on Raw Milk Comes to D.C.

The arrangement might have remained a secret, but for one problem: On April 20, two federal marshals, a state trooper, and a pair of agents from the Food and Drug Administration searched Allgyer’s farm, delivering notice that the FDA was seeking an injunction to prohibit him from selling any milk across state lines (he would still be allowed to offer it for sale in Pennsylvania). “It’s ridiculous,” says Sunukjian. “They’re treating [Allgyer] like he’s Osama bin Laden,” she says. “Why did they show up armed to an Amish farm? Did they think the farmer was going to take them on with pitchforks?” Allgyer declined to be interviewed.

In fact, the visit to Allgyer’s farm was the result of a yearlong investigation that involved undercover FDA agents infiltrating Grassfed on the Hill. After gaining membership, the feds acquired raw milk through the group, ordering tests to confirm that it was indeed unpasteurized. When asked whether the elaborate operations were a common procedure, Tamara Ward from the FDA Office of Public Affairs declined to elaborate. “This is an open case, so details on the investigation and what is currently taking place cannot be commented on at this time,” she writes by email.

David Gumpert, author of The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America’s Emerging Battle Over Food Rights, believes that this is one of the largest crackdowns ever. “State agriculture agencies have used undercover agents to buy raw milk,” he says. “But never on this kind of long-term, systematic basis.”

Lactose Intolerant: The FDA’s War on Raw Milk Comes to D.C.

Government officials say there are valid health reasons for busting unpasteurized milk distribution. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 45 outbreaks of foodborne illnesses due to unpasteurized dairy products during a seven-year period ending in 2005. Overall, the events accounted for two deaths, 104 hospitalizations, and 1,007 illnesses. “Drinking raw milk is dangerous and shouldn’t be consumed under any circumstances,” says Dara A. Corrigan, FDA’s associate commissioner for regulatory affairs.

Those numbers look a little less scary when contrasted with the CDC’s overall estimates for just one single year: The agency predicts that one in six Americans will get sick from all foodstuffs in 2011. This will result in approximately 128,000 hospitalizations and around 3,000 deaths.

“The FDA takes this attitude that raw milk is a totally dangerous product when it obviously isn’t,” Gumpert says. “If it were, people would be keeling over every day. Yes, you can get sick drinking it, but people get serious E. coli infections from other foods like raw spinach and ground beef and no one wants to illegalize those products.”

Lactose Intolerant: The FDA’s War on Raw Milk Comes to D.C.

Raw milk fans say plenty of other potentially dangerous raw stuff is available for sale—like, say, uncooked meat. “The idea that raw food is some sort of quirky thing for foodies and maniacs is silly,” says Baylen Linnekin, executive director of Keep Food Legal. “There’s no one in America who hasn’t bought a dozen eggs, an oyster, or a steak. We’re all raw food consumers.”

Amongs members of Grassfed on the Hill, there’s little debate about raw milk’s safety. “This is the same milk my farmer’s children are drinking,” says Reitzig. “If there’s something wrong with the milk, he’ll know it first and he’ll call me.”

Despite the feds’ efforts, raw milk remains available to local devotees. Reitzig says Grassfed on the Hill still gets its supplies from Allgyer’s Pennsylvania farm while the FDA injunction is pending. The group is also trying to raise money for a legal defense fund that, they hope, will get the issue into the public eye. Members organized a rally outside the Capitol on May 16 that was attended by more than 400 people and one cow.

Lactose Intolerant: The FDA’s War on Raw Milk Comes to D.C.

Advocates have some high profile non-bovine supporters, too: In the name of fighting persnickety bureaucrats, libertarian U.S. Rep. Ron Paul is sponsoring H.R. 1830, a bill that would “[allow] the shipment and distribution of unpasteurized milk and milk products for human consumption across state lines.”

Even if Allgyer’s farm is shut down, District-area raw milk enthusiasts will still be able to get their fix. A number of local community-supported agriculture cooperatives offer it to customers who know to ask the right questions. Sometimes, it’s sold as “Meow Milk,” which bears a warning label that it is not intended for human consumption. But lacto-revolutionaries know that the just-for-cats branding is just a ploy to keep the lawyers happy. “We’ll always be able to get what we need,” says Reitzig. “It just might take a little more digging.”

Reitzig says the crackdown has actually helped business: “Since the FDA’s [actions], we’ve had a tremendous amount of interest from people looking to find raw milk,” she says. “This is something that the government has done everything possible to make illegal and unavailable, but people still want it.”

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Photos by Darrow Montgomery

  • CTK

    My mom used to get raw goat milk from a coop in Arizona, but in order to do that legally, she had to effectively lease an interest in a goat, which entitled her to a share of the goat's output.

    Goat/Cow timeshares: the wave of the future.

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  • td helder

    Ok, if the FDA wants raw milk off the market, then fair is fair, ALL ALCOHOL MUST BE REMOVED FROM THE MARKET ALSO.

    According to your article and I shamelessly quote:

    "According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 45 outbreaks of foodborne illnesses due to unpasteurized dairy products during a seven-year period ending in 2005. Overall, the events accounted for two deaths, 104 hospitalizations, and 1,007 illnesses. “Drinking raw milk is dangerous and shouldn’t be consumed under any circumstances,” says Dara A. Corrigan, FDA’s associate commissioner for regulatory affairs."

    So 1007 illnesses in 7 years in the entire country. Ok take a look at the statistic below.

    Ruthlessly ripped from the CDC website:

    In 2009, 10,839 people were killed in alcohol-impaired driving crashes, accounting for nearly one-third (32%) of all traffic-related deaths in the United States.1
    Of the 1,314 traffic deaths among children ages 0 to 14 years in 2009, 181 (14%) involved an alcohol-impaired driver.1
    Of the 181 child passengers ages 14 and younger who died in alcohol-impaired driving crashes in 2009, about half (92) were riding in the vehicle with the with the alcohol-impaired driver.1
    In 2009, over 1.4 million drivers were arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or narcotics.3 That's less than one percent of the 147 million self-reported episodes of alcohol-impaired driving among U.S. adults each year.4
    Drugs other than alcohol (e.g., marijuana and cocaine) are involved in about 18% of motor vehicle driver deaths. These other drugs are often used in combination with alcohol.5

    So lets tally the numbers.

    10,839 people were killed because of alcohol in 1 year
    2 people died because of bad milk in 7 years.
    I won't even bring up the issue of cig's

    Sounds like a case of selective persecution
    Sounds like the FDA needs to get a grip

    As a side note, no I am not a member of MADD or any other anti alcohol group. I personally don't give a priest's posterior who drinks, smokes, or any of the other things that I may or may not do in life.

  • td helder

    Just an extra little comment. Maybe the raw milk lovers just haven't purchased the right people in congress. The alcohol producers lobby only had to pay half a million more dollars in the second quarter of 2010 to influence Congress and government agencies than it did in the first quarter 2010.

    (Total expenditures for 2Q 2010 Big Alcohol lobbying were more than $3.5 million)


    So if you want your raw milk legal just pony up 3.5 million and purchase a congressman or two. See how well it works for the Alcohol lobby......

  • Alex

    I don't know what's more disturbing, the fact that armed federal agents basically raided an Amish farm, or the fact that the FDA has the capability to place clandestine agents amongst the citizenry. Brave new world, indeed.

  • Priscilla

    My family has been drinking raw milk for over 6 years and never gotten sick from it. In fact my children are so healthy because of it that they have never had to go to the dr. or be put on any time of meds for anything. I can think of a long list of other foods that are literally killing the children in the country that are not only legal, but are promoted as healthy choices for children and families.
    That is a crime!

  • Mirabel

    I've had raw milk before (on a farm, straight from the cow) and it was awesome.

    I could see the FDA getting their panties in a twist if an unscrupulous merchant were selling unpasteurized milk as pasteurized to an unsuspecting public. That isn't the case here. People are going out of their way to deliberately buy raw milk.

    The FDA should know that there are bigger problems in the food supply than people in SUVs buying raw milk. What is the FDA doing to keep the e.coli cucumber problem from coming here? Guess how many people in Spain have died from eating cucumbers!

    It's like people at Customs who thought they would be busting drug dealers and human traffickers and instead wind up confiscating raw-milk mozzarella and Kinder Eggs.

  • anon

    Personally, I prefer drinking pasteurized organic milk (the little I drink) and prefer it for my kids, but if others wish to consume I don't see why it's an issue. The label/marketing should address the assumed risk (similar to unpasteurized eggs). The risk assumed by the individuals consumer has no broader population risk.

    I agree with the other commenters on the more pointed threats to food safety and the insufficient FDA controls for preventing outbreaks of food born illness. I don't eat meat, but I'm well aware of the outbreaks in the past few years involving lettuce, peanuts, spinach, mushrooms, etc

  • Jerry

    Writing to this list is a good thing. An even better thing us to write your senator and representative witd a copy to the FDA expressing your distaste for these actions and asking the
    To support Ron Paul's bill. If enough write we just
    might be able to change things.

  • JM

    I don't understand young people anymore. Between growing chickens in the backyard, eating non-inspected food from "grey markets", and drinking unpasteurized milk, it seems like people really want to be living in the 1700's. Of course, you have to willing to live with the levels of disease that were prevalent in those days too - there's a reason why pasteurization has been favored for over one hundred years. I'd also point out that, unlike alcohol, milk is commonly served to children who don't have the resources to weigh the risks for themselves. Some laws (seatbelts anyone?) are designed assuming that parents don't always know best.

  • LT

    Hi JM -

    Not sure if you're just trolling but I'll take your comments seriously.

    The idea behind wanting to return to SOME former practices is that there's been enough time since the start of industrialization to see that not everything that was left behind should have been (those young people are learning from history so they don't repeat some of the mistakes). We don't have to live with the levels of disease that were prevalent in those days because we're not trying to turn the clock back wholesale.

    Your particular argument about pasteurization is a common one. Pasteurization was necessary because of the conditions that cows were raised in for INDUSTRIALIZED milk production. By 'industrialized' I mean kept in dirty and confined spaces where infection can spread easily. When you get your milk from cows that are raised in a clean, uncrowded environment (you know, the illustrations you see on the milk cartons) pasteurization isn't strictly necessary.

    What pasteurization does allow is for MORE crowded and unclean practices because producers (quite rationally) figure they'll just heat the milk anyway so they might as well increase production to make more revenue.

    Pasteurization is one solution to unclean milk, but (like most problems in life) there probably is another way.

  • It’s safe, or is it?

    Two totally contradicting thoughts....

    Our family sells unpasteurized goat's milk from our farm out west. We market it legally as pet food, but it has helped keep several people healthy and alive, including a cancer patient who could not tolerate cow's milk. We drink it.

    That said, 18 people have already died from E-coli poisoning in Europe, following the development of a superbug that can kill most anybody who comes into contact with enough of it. This thing is scary as hell, and authorities say it is being spread by tainted lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, and unpasteurized milk. This story is just developing, and it's over there - as opposed to over here - but a word to the wise should be sufficient.

  • Terry in Silver Spring

    How about some facts and figures? These are taken from a report put out by Cornell (

    - In 1938 (before pasteurization), 25% of all U.S. illnesses resulting from consumption of contaminated food and water were linked back to milk consumption

    - Modern U.S. dairy products are associated with considerably less than 1% of foodborne illnesses that are traced back to food source each year

    - The reduction in numbers of foodborne illnesses associated with milk consumption over the years reflects implementation of: (i) on-farm programs to control animal diseases, including brucellosis, tuberculosis and mastitis; (ii) enhanced farm sanitation practices; (iii) temperature control of milk products from the farm to the consumer (milk must be kept at 45 deg F or below within 2 hours of milking); and (iv) pasteurization of the majority of commercial dairy products

    - In the past 20 years, illnesses from dairy product consumption have been predominantly associated with Salmonella enterica, Listeria monocytogenes, Campylobacter jejuni, and Escherichia coli O157:H7. These organisms can be present in milk obtained from healthy animals, typically as a consequence of contamination that occurs during or after milking (e.g., milk contamination from contact with fecal material or inadequately cleaned equipment).

    -In recent years, pathogenic microorganisms have been isolated from bulk tank samples at rates ranging from 0.87% to 12.6% of total samples collected, indicating a measurable probability of encountering pathogenic bacteria in raw milk

    So, yes, dairy farms are cleaner and cows are healthier than they were back in the 30's, but the pathogens are still found these days in raw milk...more than 12% of milk tested. If you drink raw milk, you are taking an unnecessary risk with the your health and that of your family.

    This fad will end when people in one of these collectives get very very sick.

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  • Jarvis


    You need to learn about how reality and "facts" relate. I've been drinking raw milk for 2 years. Because, unlike other food, you can live exclusively on the stuff with no danger of malnutrition, this often means I drink nothing but raw milk for days at a time.

    If I were going to get sick, I would have a long time ago. The fact is, not only did it cure me of an "auto-immune" disease which had all the best doctors at Emory stumped; I have never so much as gotten a cold since I started drinking it.

    Oh, and to top it all off, I've consumed many quarts of the stuff after leaving them out unrefrigerated for days at a time.

    If you want to talk about reality, try any of this with the swill you get from the store and then get back to me. You will be sick as a dog.

  • Vicki

    Way more people die of dog bites every year than have died from consuming contaminated dairy products in a decade. (34 deaths in 201; 1000 people treated in emergency rooms, half of them children bitten in the face.) Just try to outlaw dogs!

    The impetus for these crackdowns comes from Big Dairy -- it's not the government's idea. Big Dairy is terrified that people will find out there is an alternative to their poisoned milk.

    There's a big difference in milk from cows that hang out in pens full of mud and feces and that from cows on pasture. Back at the turn of the century, when people really were getting sick from milk, the cows were fed on wastes from breweries and were kept in hideous conditions. The milk was unrefrigerated, dipped out of barrels kept in general stores. Highly recommend The Common Sense of the Milk Question, a book published in that time period.

    Organic Pastures, raw milk producers in CA, actually publishes their laboratory results on their web site.

    You won't find standard dairies doing that. They are just pasteurizing filthy milk.

  • Terry in Silver Spring


    Best of luck playing roulette. I mean that.

  • Farmer Doug

    Milk began being pasteurized because of the very mistaken belief that cows were transmitting TB to people. At the time, many dairies were set up at the city outskirts next to distilleries where they were fed the distillery waste, leading to sick cows and sick milk (pale light blue in color). There was a big fight about whether to pasteurize milk, with most doctors on the side of "quality" raw milk (which must, BTW, include grass-fed), which at the time was often prescribed as medicine. Pasteurization won; it was the easy way out. It turns out that bovine TB can't be transmitted to humans; the city dairy workers had human TB and were transmitting it to the milk. Even more insidious was the drive towards homogenization, which arose out of simple laziness. Suburbanites were too lazy to shake their milk. To homogenize milk, they blast the milk at super high pressure against a stainless steel wall, making the fat and protein molecules in separable, as well as indigestible. This leads to coronary and arterial disease over the long run.

    There is no reason in today's world of refrigeration to not have raw milk available to everyone. It actually increases one's resistance to the "bad" bacteria. They say 90% of our immune system is in the gut, and raw milk makes our guts healthy. Raw milk contains the numerous beneficial microbes which help populate our guts and provide the microbial balance we need.

    You also need to understand that in the vast majority of raw milk illness cases, there was never found any direct link to the raw milk, and/or the people who got sick were immuno-compromised to begin with. So, keep in mind the famous math book, "Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics." Hot dogs, by comparison, are responsible for more than 10 times the foodborne illnesses measured on a consumption basis.

    Oxymoronic is "organic" milk which is always homogenized and ultra-pasteurized. You only harm yourself by drinking that crap.

    Finally, does anyone really think that governments should be able to prevent any adult from getting the kind of food they want? In fact, I think it's criminal to force people to drink industrial milk, since it leads to far more deaths and illness in the long-run. In any event, for a great history of milk, read "The Untold Story of Milk."

  • rob Baum

    I have been drinking raw milk for 5 years I have never been as healthy as I am today. I have not been sick for even one day, have not had a cold since. for the last 3 years I run a raw milk dairy, my cows live outside on green grass. People need to find out about raw milk health benefits such: as allergies eczema and digestive disorder can be cured.

  • THC

    raw milk is tight!! also i like to suck on titties

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  • Always Sick Chick

    You can find, purchase and eat cheese that comes from raw milk, though. Organic Valley makes it and it's sold in many stores. I buy it all the time...and they frequently have coupons, as they are rather expensive.