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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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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