Photo by Isaac Harrell
A few years ago, rheumatoid arthritis had nearly taken over Elli Sparks' life. The then 40-year-old mother of two quit her job and spent much of her day homebound on prescription pain pills. "There were times when I couldn't even walk across the room without hobbling from hip and knee pain," Sparks recalls.
In a desperate search for relief, Sparks turned to a substance that is illegal to sell for human consumption in more than 20 states, including Virginia. Now the Woodland Heights resident is off pain medication, working full time and sometimes leading hourlong dance classes on weekday evenings.
She attributes her improved health to unpasteurized milk — a claim that's echoed by other raw-milk enthusiasts but viewed skeptically by health professionals.
About half of the states allow for retail or farm sales of unpasteurized, or raw, milk, including Arizona, California, Maine and Pennsylvania, but in Virginia raw-milk sales are illegal. Consumers like Sparks bypass the law by buying a "share" of a cow or goat. In exchange for the cost of boarding and feeding an animal, shareholders are allocated a portion of its milk.
According to a 2007 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's FoodNet, 3.04 percent of the U.S. population drinks raw milk, or about 9.4 million people based on the 2010 census.
"Milk from a cow raised the way nature intended it [and] cared for by farmers who are keeping things clean is a perfectly fabulous product," says Sparks, who hosts cooking classes at her home and maintains a natural foods blog ( whatscookingrichmond.blogspot.com ).
But federal and state health officials say that raw milk can harbor harmful bacteria, including salmonella, E. coli and listeria, which are responsible for causing numerous foodborne illnesses.
Pasteurization, heating milk to a prescribed temperature to kill food-poisoning bacteria, became routine in the 1950s, when foodborne illnesses from the consumption of contaminated milk arose from poorly maintained farms.
"There is a risk associated with drinking raw milk," says Seth Levine, foodborne disease epidemiologist with the Virginia Department of Health. "We know that milk in its raw state contains certain bacteria, and some of those bacteria can be disease-causing or pathogenic, which can lead to gastrointestinal illness."
Levine cites two foodborne illness outbreaks associated with raw dairy-product consumption in Virginia in the past 10 years. In 2006, nine people who had consumed raw milk became ill with campylobacteriosis, a common bacterial infection that produces bloody diarrhea, cramps, fever and pain. In 2009, four people became ill with brucellosis, an infectious disease with symptoms such as fever, sweating, weakness, headaches and muscular pain. Unpasteurized cheese was the suspected cause of this outbreak, Levine says.
Still, raw milk advocates stand by their claims that the milk is safe and more nutritious than pasteurized milk.
"Raw milk is a very delicate food," says Sally Fallon Morrell, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a Washington-based consumer nutrition advocacy organization. She says that every vitamin and mineral in raw milk has a carrier protein or enzyme that helps it to be digested and assimilated, and that the complex antimicrobial system in raw milk is greatly diminished when it is pasteurized.
"And it's got a beautiful taste," Morrell adds. "It's very sweet and creamy and has overtones of vanilla, chocolate and coffee."
Jan Starkey, manager of the outpatient nutrition clinic at VCU Medical Center, says pasteurized milk has the same protein content as raw milk and that the only impact of pasteurization would be the destruction of healthy bacteria. "But you can get that in fermented-milk products like good yogurt and kefir," she says. Starkey sides with the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics in advising strongly against the consumption of unpasteurized dairy products.
"What we do in the field of medicine and nutrition needs to have a scientific basis in order for us to recommend it," Starkey says. "When you look at the risk-benefit comparison of drinking raw milk, the risk of drinking it outweighs the potential benefits."