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FDA cracks down on sales of raw milk

While devotees call it a 'magic food,' health officials warn it can be deadly and won't let it cross state lines.

June 22, 2008|From the Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Dairy owner Mark McAfee started selling raw milk in 2000, marketing it to customers who believe it contains beneficial microbes that treat everything from asthma to autism.

The unpasteurized milk swiftly caught on as part of the growing natural food movement. But the Food and Drug Administration considers McAfee a snake-oil salesman and recently launched an investigation into whether his dairy illegally shipped raw milk across state lines.

The case against McAfee is part of a crackdown on raw milk by health officials who are concerned about the spread of food-borne illnesses. Twenty-two states prohibit sale of raw milk for human consumption. In Pennsylvania, officials recently busted two dairies unlawfully selling milk straight from the cow.

"Raw milk should not be consumed by anyone for any reason," said John Sheehan, head of the FDA's dairy office. "It is an inherently dangerous product."

But shutting down sales is tricky because the federal government has largely let states regulate the raw milk industry. Devotees of raw milk ascribe to it almost mythical healing powers. They feed it to babies, believing it strengthens the immune system and staves off digestive troubles. Pasteurization, they say, destroys healthy natural proteins and enzymes.

"It's a magic food," said Sally Fallon, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates consumption of natural foods.

The FDA insists pasteurization destroys harmful bacteria without significantly changing milk's nutritional value.

Food safety officials say raw milk sickens people with Salmonella, E. coli and other bacteria. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1,000 people fell ill from raw milk between 1998 and 2005. Two died.

The FDA ban on cross-border sales of raw milk led to its criminal investigation of Organic Pastures, a Fresno dairy owned by McAfee. The agency ordered two of McAfee's employees to testify before a grand jury and offered to pay one of them to record her conversations with McAfee, according to the worker.

"The main issue was selling our products outside the state of California," said Amanda Hall, who refused to wear the wire.

Even if McAfee avoids criminal charges, he still faces lawsuits filed by the families of five children who allege his raw milk made them seriously ill. He denies the allegations and said testing at his dairy did not detect the strain of E. coli that sickened some of the children.

Whole Foods Co. lobbied for a law to ensure that raw milk dairies can stay in business.

"It is a growing piece of our business," said Walter Robb, the company's co-president. "We want to protect consumer choice."

But parents like Melissa Herzog strongly disagree. Herzog, whose 10-year-old daughter spent two months in the hospital after her kidneys failed because of E. coli poisoning, is one of the people suing Organic Pastures.

"I don't have anything good to say about raw milk," she said. "It was a horrible experience."

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