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Raw milk easily available despite bird flu warning and FDA interstate ban




Raw milk easily available despite bird flu warning and FDA interstate ban

WASHINGTON — It’s Friday, May 10, and I’m on my way to what feels like the weirdest drug deal in the world.

I received a text from a man named Karl the day before. My order was supposed to arrive from Maryland to the Northwest DC drop site between 2:00 PM and 4:00 PM. It will be packed safely in ice packs, he assured me.

I pull up to a house worth over $1.5 million, with a Tesla parked outside and two classic cars in the driveway. It looks like the lights are on. Do they know their driveway is being used to commit a federal crime?

“I’m 1 minute away,” Karl texts me. Then a black Dodge minivan pulls up. Karl pulls out half a dozen Igloo coolers that are so big they have to be pulled by a trailer. They are all filled with individual packets of raw milk. This guy moves a lot of weight.

He asks if I’ve ever drunk raw milk. No, I say. Is there anything I should know? No, he answers, he has been drinking it all his life and gives it to his children. Although I technically buy “pet milk,” I quickly realize that we don’t pretend this is fed to our cats and dogs. After what feels like an eternity, he finds my package: a half-liter jug.

Interstate commerce in raw milk is illegal due to the risk of serious illness from drinking unpasteurized milk. But in Washington and many other places around the country, raw milk is being shipped across state lines and sold openly to eager customers — and the Food and Drug Administration is doing nothing to stop it. This lapse in enforcement has taken on new significance, much like the H5N1 bird flu virus distributed to at least 46 dairy cow herds in nine states. Government testing has found genetic traces of the virus in 1 in 5 samples of store-bought milk, indicating the possible presence of live virus in the raw product.

I found the company I bought it from Although it’s called “pet milk” online, raw milk boosters admit this is just a formality to keep the FDA at bay.

“It’s very good for cats and dogs, but you have to admit it’s a loophole,” says Sally Fallon Morell, founder and president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, which advocates for raw milk. “You can eat pet food.”

The market for out-of-state pet milk exists largely because the FDA allowed it to, a former agency official acknowledged to STAT. The agency has issued only six warnings to interstate shippers of raw milk in the past two decades, according to its website, even though the practice was banned in 1987.

“Overall, I would say the agency has been pretty much absent,” said Stephen Ostroff, former deputy commissioner for human nutrition at the FDA. “The more you know it’s there and don’t take action, the more common it becomes.”

Ostroff said agency officials debated internally about a decade ago about how to handle raw milk and considered writing an informal policy outlining when the FDA would go after companies that ship raw milk, but “there was a variety of opinions within the agency about how aggressive or not aggressive we should be in that space…especially given how passionate people are.

The Price Foundation claims on its website that the FDA “has never issued a regulation prohibiting the sale of raw pet milk across state lines.”

Contacted after the Washington drop-off, Karl told STAT: “We’re not trying to do anything illegal.” He added that his milk is “pet milk” which is “not intended for human consumption.”

The FDA said in a statement that “if the FDA becomes aware that raw milk labeled for pets is actually intended for the human food supply, it may take action on a case-by-case basis.”

MYour pint of raw milk looked delicious. It was ice cold and the color of the most delicious French vanilla ice cream. But I didn’t give in. My love for fresh frozen candy doesn’t outweigh my aversion to food poisoning – or bird flu.

Raw milk carries a high risk of containing bacteria ranging from Salmonella and E. coli to Listeria and Campylobacter. Between 1998 and 2018, more than 2,600 people became ill and 228 were hospitalized after drinking raw milk. data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While milk on store shelves has been heated to kill bacteria in a process known as pasteurization, raw milk enthusiasts eschew this protection because, they say, it turns milk from an almost magically nutritious food item into something, they claim, that is bad for people. .

“If they feed ultrapasteurized milk to rats, their memory skills and their learning skills deteriorate – and so the rats become stupid,” Morell said. (She did not respond to STAT’s follow-up request to provide scientific research supporting her claim.)

Raw milk has become especially concerning to public health officials and food scientists as news of H5N1 spreading to cows has emerged. Although no individual has reported contracting H5N1 from consuming raw milk, the only reported human case during the current outbreak was a worker on a dairy farm. who had direct exposure to cows and developed conjunctivitis, possibly from touching his eye with infected milk — scientists believe that the virus can be transmitted through the infected cow’s milk. One expert previously told STAT that drinking milk contaminated with H5N1 could deliver a dose of the virus large enough to kill the consumer.

Morell said in an interview with STAT that H5N1 is “not real.” “They have never proven that this virus exists,” she claimed. “This whole science of virology is very corrupt – it’s not really a science.” (According to World Health Organization data, H5N1 has caused 463 human deaths since 2003.)

The FDA, in turn, has reiterated its advice to consumers not to drink raw milk. Raw milk lovers, however, seem completely undeterred.

“Business is going well,” says Morell. “People who drink raw milk don’t believe these things. They don’t believe the government.”

The reporter’s raw milk, shown in his kitchen in Washington, D.C., came from Maryland, although interstate sales of unpasteurized milk are illegal. Nicolaas Florko/STAT

KArl appears to be in his early forties and is wearing sneakers, khaki pants and a flannel overcoat. He doesn’t look like someone who knowingly breaks the law. He is a family farmer. On his website there is a photo of his three children laughing by a lake.

The “pet milk” he sells is legal in Maryland. According to the Price Foundation, only three states and Washington DC say it is illegal to sell raw milk.

Therein lies the FDA’s biggest challenge with raw milk: Enforcing the interstate shipping ban would mean FDA agents taking legal action against small farms across the country.

The FDA often has difficulty monitoring small sellers who sell illegal goods. That’s why it’s so easy to buy illegal products—from CBD gummies to illegal vapes—in the FDA’s backyard. But the raw milk debate is even more tumultuous for the FDA because it would mean throwing the book at farmers, including those in the Amish community, who have been particularly active in the raw milk debate.

Ostroff acknowledged that these public relations concerns played a role in the agency’s decision not to largely enforce the interstate shipping ban.

“It was a combination of, is this what the agency wants to put its resources into, knowing that it’s probably not going to make a huge difference… and then it’s the optics of going after this community, and how passionate consumers are about this product ,” Ostroff said.

Even the few times the FDA went after dairies shipping raw milk, it wasn’t always easy to stop them from selling the product.

The agency has been embroiled in a 16-year legal battle with a California farmer, Mark McAfee, who reportedly operates the nation’s largest raw dairy plant. While the FBI successfully convinced a judge in 2010 to ban McAfee from selling its products, the FDA and Justice Department late last month asked a federal judge to reopen the case against McAfee after he reportedly denied the order and his raw had ignored cheese and dairy products. were linked to two outbreaks of foodborne illness.

“This is the second time in less than a year that the United States has had to seek the Court’s intervention to force Raw Farm to comply with its court-ordered obligations,” the government’s lawyers wrote in a recent legal filing .

The government letter makes no mention of H5N1.

McAfee’s business couldn’t be clearer. His company is called Raw Farm and his website openly claims that he ships milk across the country.

Other smaller operations aren’t exactly clandestine either.

As I leave with my “pet milk,” Karl tells me that if he gets to the delivery location before me next time, he’ll leave the milk in the driveway. Customers are free to pick up their raw milk from the coolers. He just asks them to leave the ice packs for next week.

It dawns on me: Every Friday there are gallons of illegal raw milk in the driveway in Northwest DC

The FDA headquarters is just 6.5 miles away.