by Brian McEachern
The scene is Kinzer, PA, Rainbow Acres Farm, April 20, 2010, 5 AM. Owned and operated by Daniel Allgyer, an Amish farmer who ran a Pennsylvania-based buyers’ club titled Grassfed On the Hill. Also on the farm are two FDA agents, two armed U.S. Marshals, and a state trooper. They’re about to execute a search warrant that allows them to search the entire farm, except for the private residence. This search is the climax to a months-long sting operation conducted by the FDA, in which undercover agents posed as new customers to Allgyer’s buyer’s club. The agents documented interstate sales of unpasteurized milk into Maryland and Washington D.C., which is unfortunate for Daniel Allgyer – the FDA federally banned interstate sales of unpasteurized milk in the ’80s. In response to the escalating legal pressure, Allgyer closed his farm.
While this story seems relatively obscure, unpasteurized or “raw” milk is mildly popular in the United States. The CDC estimates that one to three percent of Americans consume unpasteurized milk. Even though that sounds like an insignificant number, that is still a few million people. Daniel Allgyer and Rainbow Acre Farms became a rallying cry for libertarians and members of Allgyer’s buyer’s club, culminating in a protest on the National Mall where participants drank unpasteurized milk within view of the Capitol Building.
Inside the Capitol Building, people sympathize to the cause of raw milk. Former Texas Rep. Ron Paul coined the phrase “pasteurization without representation.” Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie admitted to drinking raw milk as a child and introduced legislation in favor of it multiple times. Among these included the “Interstate Milk Freedom Act” in 2014, a standalone bill in 2015, and as an amendment to the 2018 Farm Bill. The legislation aimed to ban federal interference in interstate sales of unpasteurized milk. It never gained traction within the House.
On the state level, pasteurization regulations are significantly less severe. In all 50 states, it’s legal to drink unpasteurized milk, and in 28 states, it’s legal to sell it within the state’s borders. The government agency tasked with cracking down on interstate sales is a classic enemy to libertarians, the FDA.
Despite the federal government banning interstate sales of unpasteurized milk in the 80s, the commercial sale of pasteurized milk was a universal practice by the 50s. Dairy farmers needed to respond to the increasing urbanization of America, which meant longer travel distances for their milk, increasing the risk of harmful bacteria developing in raw milk. Pasteurization became the standard for commercially sold milk long before there were federal regulations.
The sale and consumption of unpasteurized milk in America is a localized process. Most dairy farmers who produce raw milk sell to people within their community and take precautions to ensure that the raw milk they sell is safe for consumption. These precautions include testing for bacteria contamination and checking the somatic cell count of the dairy cows, which indicates whether the cow is perfectly healthy or potentially sick. Despite the methods used to mitigate the risks of drinking raw milk, drinking pasteurized milk is still much safer. The CDC estimates that becoming sick after drinking unpasteurized milk is 150 times more likely than potential sickness from consuming pasteurized milk. The CDC conducted a study from 2006-2011, which claimed that 796 people from 24 different states suffered illnesses after drinking raw milk. Considering that a few million Americans consume raw milk regularly, that figure is low. Due to the local nature of raw milk sales and the precautions that dairy farmers take, the risk from drinking raw milk remains relatively low, but the risk of drinking pasteurized milk is virtually nonexistent.
After taking raw milk out of the picture, it’s evident that plenty of Americans have extremely unhealthy lifestyles. Raw milk, while potentially dangerous, at least has some nutritional value. Despite the risk of bacterial infection, it’s a lot healthier than plenty of the substances we as Americans imbibe regularly. If Americans are allowed to destroy their lungs with tobacco, damage their livers with alcohol, and recklessly gamble or invest their own money, is it that big of a deal if people buy unpasteurized milk from their local dairy farmer? E. coli and Campylobacter infections are serious, but I’d take that over lung cancer, liver failure, or bankruptcy any day. One of the few things that make this country worth living in is our ability to indulge in a plethora of self-destructive habits if we choose to; drinking raw milk is merely one of the unnecessary risks we as Americans should be allowed to take.