It’s this feeling of being able to personally connect with local farmers — and even to meet the cows that produce the milk — that customers say they crave. They say it tastes better and gives them choice.
“I’m lactose intolerant. But I can drink raw milk without any sickness,” said shopper Traci Church. She attempted to give her 3-year old daughter Emma Grace pasteurized milk during K-Bar’s two-month recall. “No Mommy, this is not my milk,” her daughter protested.
“You want people to have a choice in the marketplace,” noted Suresh Pillai, director of the National Center for Electron Beam Research at Texas A&M University, which focuses on new methods to increase food safety.
“But we are about reducing the health risk. That’s really what science is trying to do.”
It’s these challenges that keep direct-to-consumer sales of raw milk at only a fraction of the $38.8 billion U.S. dairy industry. Getting hard numbers isn’t easy, partly because the industry is less regulated.
K-Bar milk sells for $6 a gallon. Lambert says she and her husband, Jeff, earn about $20,000 a month, but not just from milk. They survived the recall by selling other products, including meat and baby bulls.
Jack Curran, an analyst with California-based market research company IBISWorld, estimates farm-to-person raw milk sales are less than 5 percent of the overall dairy market.
“Small enough that it falls under an ‘other’ category for us.”
An illness outbreak can be devastating. “We talked about closing every couple of days,” admitted Lambert.
Knowing the risks
Raw dairy causes 839 times more illnesses and 45 times more hospitalizations than pasteurized products, estimated a study released this year in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.
The risk of an outbreak is about 150 times higher from raw milk than from pasteurized milk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The elderly, people with compromised immune systems and children younger than 5 are the most likely to get sick from consuming it, the federal health agency said.
In unpasteurized milk, microorganisms like salmonella, E.coli, brucellosis and listeria are not killed. That’s “the big sticking point” from a public health perspective, said Katherine Fogelberg, a doctor of veterinary medicine who teaches at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth.
“It’s not a black market. But it’s frowned upon,” she said.
The process to pasteurize milk dates back to 1860s France. Chemist Louis Pasteur discovered that bacteria could be destroyed by heating beverages for a sustained amount of time, then cooling them.