Rep. Scot Turner (R-Holly Springs) wrote a bill that aims to allow retail stores and farmers to sell raw milk for human consumption.
The current law only allows raw milk to be sold for pets.
In theory, legalizing raw milk so humans can drink it may sound wonderful, but residents said they doubt such laws would improve the quality of the milk they drink or make it more affordable. Worse, a new law could backfire, they say, destroying the fragile web that connects small farmers and their customers.
The active, growing cadre of raw milk drinkers in the metro Atlanta region insists they are fine with the way things are now, and they want the government to keep its hands off their milk.
“Whenever someone says to me ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help,’ right then, I step back and go ‘Woah, I’m really leery about that,’” said Cindy Morrow, a Woodstock resident and regular consumer of raw milk.
Making the drive, paying the price
Most Cobb residents swing by a chain grocery store, reach into a refrigerated container and pick up red, blue or green-lidded gallons of milk, far-removed from the cows who produced them.
The idea of being so detached from her food doesn’t appeal to Morrow. So each Thursday, she drives a few extra miles to meet a local farmer and buy what she considers “real milk.”
Morrow, along with dozens of her friends and family members, make long trips out to farms and pre-arranged pick-up sites across Cobb and Cherokee counties each week to pick up fresh, raw milk, clearly labeled “For Pet Consumption Only.”
She catches up with her farmer, whose family and animals she has met, and usually buys a number of gallons to feed her four children and eight grandchildren. Morrow said she pays between $7 and $8 a gallon.
The Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the average price of a gallon of processed milk to be $3.55 in January.
The extra miles, extra dollars and extra scheduling are all worth it for Morrow. She willingly drinks milk sold to her exclusively for pet consumption, and doesn’t mind taking the risk some raw milk opponents claim are present in the substance.
She would rather take the chance of coming across contamination or potentially dangerous bacteria than having the government regulate her weekly milk runs.
“I’m happy with the transaction. I can find milk, pay for it and get it. It is already legal,” Morrow said.
“It’s perfectly fine the way it is now, so why would we want licenses and regulations?”
Morrow fears as soon as raw milk is legalized, regulations and limits will be forced upon small farmers, forever altering the livelihoods and relationships of farmers and their customers.
“Regulation is always tilted toward big agriculture, not small farms,” Morrow said. “I don’t mind taking the ‘risk’ with food. I do have a problem with big government.”
Morrow hopes the bill will quietly go away. She already buys milk legally, why would she want that to change?
“Anyone right now who makes it a point to get it can get it,” said Sandra Walker, a mother of two and another regular consumer of raw milk.
Walker drives a good 30 minutes through Cobb each week to pick up her milk. She pays anywhere between $7.50 and $16 a gallon, depending on which farmer she meets up with.
The Walker family doesn’t have cable, a new car or high-tech technology. Her family prioritizes buying high-quality dairy and meat from local sources.
Local residents said they would rather pay the price of milk up front, instead of paying for expensive medications and health problems later in life.
“It’s so satisfying on so many levels, it’s worth the cost and it makes sense to eat stuff that is not processed,” said Judy, who lives in north Cobb and requested that her full name not be used.
Judy meets her farmer each week in Marietta.
Testifying before state House
On Wednesday morning, Walker joined roughly 80 others at the state Capitol in Atlanta to testify in front of the House Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee on the benefits of raw milk.
“Raw milk is one of the most nutrient-dense foods that is available to us,” Walker said.
While it would have been convenient to visit a grocery store and buy milk during both winter snowstorms this year, Walker said her relationship with her farmers is almost sacred.
“It would be nice if raw milk was more widely available, but I don’t want to compromise what I already have. I can go to the farm and meet the farmer and he is able to produce milk for me without being regulated. I put a very high priority on knowing the person who produces my food,” Walker said.
Even if raw milk is able to be sold in grocery stores, Walker said she would still drive out to meet her farmer face-to-face to pick up her milk.
State Rep. Turner has tried raw milk twice in his life. The Holly Springs conservative, who authored the bill, strongly believes the government has no right distinguishing which types of milk people drink, regardless of where and how they buy it.
“Food and freedom is an issue I’m passionate about. I think people should have the option to eat real foods, and foods they determine are best for them,” Turner said.
Everyone can’t drive to pick up milk at a far-away farm or a drop-off location during the work day, and Turner believes consumers in Georgia are capable of making their own decisions in grocery stores as to what type of milk to buy.
“For me, it’s about limiting government in our everyday lives and allowing consumers to make their own decisions,” Turner said.
He pointed to states such as South Carolina, California, Maine and Arizona, where selling and buying raw milk is legal. Turner said he has heard from Georgians who drive across the border to South Carolina to buy milk in stores.
“It’s almost as if they are treating it as moonshine. To me, it seemed kind of silly,” Turner said.
While many people testified against the bill Wednesday, Turner said he has received hundreds of emails and phone calls in support. Time is running out to get it passed by the end of this session, but Turner promised to push for its passage into law, if not this year, then next year.
“It’s not dead,” he said.
Bottom line, Turner said, is to keep the government out of grocery stores.
“I’ll continue to fight for the consumer and making sure government isn’t mandating what we can and cannot eat,” Turner said.
What the government says about milk
Daniel Seedorf, a Powder Springs native who lives on a farm in west Cobb, loves his job.
Every morning, he milks his cow, and on mornings when he is on call at his side job as a firefighter, his wife milks.
The fresh milk is immediately filtered into half-gallon glass jars and refrigerated until it reaches the hands of his customers.
Conventional milk is heated after milking, a process called pasteurization, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says is the safest method.
Raw milk supporters believe pasteurization kills off helpful gut-friendly probiotics and vitamins only found in milk’s raw form.
Unpasteurized milk from cows grazed on grass, instead of from cows fed grains and soy, is believed to have higher levels of fat-soluble vitamins and essential fatty acids, which increases the ability for humans to absorb the proteins and nutrients naturally found in milk, according to realmilk.com, a website devoted to the legalization of raw milk.
Raw milk proponents also believe drinking milk in its untouched state reduces symptoms of asthma and allergies in children, and contains higher levels of vitamins C, A, manganese, copper and iron, according to realmilk.com.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration states on its website raw, unpasteurized milk can carry dangerous bacteria, such as salmonella, E.coli and listeria.
Local raw milk drinkers believe the threat of bacteria in grass-fed, pastured milk from small farms is negated, or extremely diminished when the cow isn’t fed grains or injected with hormones and medicine, as many conventional cows on large dairy farms are.
Regulation seen as crushing blow to local farmers
Four years ago, Seedorf had an epiphany.
“Food is killing us. Conventionally grown food is not sustaining good health in America. I had very young children, and I want the very best for my children. I am not a wealthy person and I could not afford to do all my shopping at an organic grocery store such as Whole Foods or farmers markets,” Seedorf said.
So, he and his wife and four children started East West Farm in west Cobb on 7.5 acres of land off Barrett Parkway near Dallas Highway.
There, they own two jersey cows, who eat the grass in their backyard.
The work is hard and never ends. But Seedorf and other small farmers in the area are so passionate about what they do, they are willing to do the extra work.
Seedorf’s customers seek out his raw milk, sold for pet consumption only, because they want to. They consider his unprocessed product, he said, a “whole food,” as opposed to a bag of chips or a gallon of commercially-sold milk, which has been processed before making it to their hands.
“For those who are seeking it out for whatever purposes they might have and know what the benefits and value of a whole food like raw milk, a label does not deter them,” Seedorf said.
Selling and purchasing raw milk isn’t illegal. Seedorf believes Turner wrote the bill to change raw milk’s reputation.
“It’s about a stigma. It’s not about legalizing. There is a small camp of folks who don’t want to be inconvenienced. Because raw milk is not sold in grocery stores, and not sold at retail, folks have to make some adjustments and put forth some effort in order to acquire it,” Seedorf said. “Quite frankly, I and a huge majority of the folks who are in favor of raw milk, we believe that is what it should take. When you mesh food with convenience, that’s where we get all the problems.”
If the law changed to allow Seedorf to sell raw milk to retail grocery stores, his way of life would be destroyed, he said.
Seedorf is afraid the regulations that would come with the law would crush his ability to produce and sell directly to his customers.
“I would not pursue it. I do not want to have faceless transactions. Every single one of my customers come here to my farm and meet me face-to-face,” he said. “There is no third party or middleman. The best food is not convenient. It’s a lot of effort, a lot of work, but incredibly rewarding to grow food like this. My value on my food is such that I expect my customers to come to me.”
Each half-gallon comes at a high price: $8, but Seedorf said his customers are willing to pay.
If he had to change the way he milked or ran his business under a new law, Seedorf said his ability to sustain his family farm would be jeopardized.
“It would be detrimental in my opinion and every other dairy farmer in Georgia who is not a commercial dairy farmer. We all agree the government regulation would not help the raw milk movement.” Seedorf said. “They would end up restricting raw milk access and drive the costs way up. I wouldn’t quit, but it would be a burden.”
PROS AND CONS OF DRINKING RAW MILK:
Proponents of raw milk say the health benefits are numerous, including:
Higher levels of vitamins and minerals, including manganese, copper, iron and vitamins C and A
Contains probiotics, which are believed to increase the “good” bacteria in human intestines
High fat content and untouched proteins make raw milk easier for humans to digest
Protects children against asthma and many allergies
Supports small farmers
Continues a tradition, as humans have been recorded drinking raw milk for centuries
*Information from a pro-raw milk website: realmilk.com
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which cites data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, raw milk:
Is 150 times more likely to cause foodborne illnesses
Results in 13 times more hospitalizations than illnesses involving pasteurized dairy products
Can carry dangerous bacteria responsible for causing foodborne illnesses and diseases, including Salmonella, E.Coli, typhoid fever and tuberculosis
May be dangerous to the immune systems of older adults, pregnant women and children
*Data from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration website, fda.gov