Wisconsin dairy farmer Vernon Hershberger is facing the possibility of jail time for selling raw milk produced on his farm to consumers in his private food club. The Wisconsin Department of Agricultural Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) charged Hershberger with selling raw milk and other products from his farm to a private buying group and with running a food establishment without a license. If convicted, he could face a three-year jail sentence.
Hershberger established a food club in Baraboo, Wis. with a membership of 200 people who pay annual dues; since he sells his raw milk and farm products solely within this club, he claims that it is not a retail operation and that he does not need to have a license to sell his products. He believes that he is innocent of the charges brought forth against him.
Raw milk is unpasteurized, unlike the Grade A milk that is widely sold in U.S. supermarkets. The health benefits of raw milk are somewhat controversial. Advocates for the product insist that pasteurization, a form of food processing, kills beneficial bacteria, enzymes and nutrients in the milk, such as lipase and immunoglobulins, which they believe cannot survive the heat generated by the pasteurization process. Food scientists, however, disagree with this claim.
Opponents of raw milk believe that the amount of bacteria present in raw milk is harmful and is a health hazard, whereas raw milk supporters believe that the amount of bacteria in the milk is too small to harm humans. The government and food regulation authorities believe that raw milk is unsafe for consumption, and that the alleged health benefits of raw milk are not substantiated by scientific evidence.
The debate remains as to whether the amounts of these bacteria found in raw milk are high enough to cause these diseases. Some people believe that, when produced from an organic farm that practices the strictest sanitary procedures, ensuring that the level of contamination from bacteria is as low as possible, raw milk can be safe to drink. A group that supports Hershberger as well as raw milk production, Raw Milk Freedom Riders, says that their goal is for raw milk to be sold in retail stores with a label warning consumers that the raw product may contain health risks, similar to the warning labels on raw fish and meat.
People with weak immune systems, including children and elderly people, are the most susceptible to potential pathogens in raw milk. These bacteria, including E. coli, salmonella and tuberculosis, can cause a variety of diseases, such as miscarriage and fetal damage in pregnant women and kidney failure.
Commonly consumed by farming families, raw milk has experienced an increase in demand and interest in recent years, likely due to a growing population of Americans who have shifted their diets to include more natural and organic foods. Ten states prohibit the sale of raw milk in retail stores, while ten other states allow it. The remainder of the states have varying rules on raw milk sale and production, with some allowing it to be sold as pet food and other permitting its sale on farms only (a map of states that allow raw milk production can be found here).
Hershberger’s case is among recent farm raids conducted across the United States by the FBI, which have forced farms to close and have left customers without access to products. The community of Baraboo, Wis. is rallying in support of Hershberger and his values of freedom of choice and freedom to produce food. Supporters of Hershberger and raw milk production are invited to attend a food rights workshop on March 1, as well as a rally on March 2 outside of the Sauk County Circuit Court in Baraboo, hosted by Raw Milk Freedom Riders and the Farm Food Freedom Coalition.
Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/kthread/4052975818