FDA cracks down on raw milk farms

By Libby Sherwood
Staff Writer

After a series of recent nation-wide raids, Arizona family-run dairy farms fear their businesses and livelihoods are in jeopardy. Government agencies have been targeting raw milk farms with a court order “to destroy.”

Many local Arizona farmers have halted all sales of their raw dairy products, while others refuse to discuss their business protocol with outsiders — including journalists — in order to protect their livestock and themselves.

Only Grade A pasteurized or certified pasteurized milk is allowed to be sold commercially in Arizona. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires this process for safety reasons, claiming, “Pasteurization kills harmful bacteria — including salmonella, E. coli, and listeria — that can contaminate milk before it gets to your table.” Essentially, they advocate that risks of contamination are too great to distribute to the public. In the case of large-scale agricultural facilities, which have thousands of cows living in tight, unsanitary quarters, they are probably right. But what does that mean for those of us who still want to support local business and reap personal health benefits such as unique vitamin complexes present in raw dairy?

Nance Sparks, a local raw dairy farmer, believes that the fears and regulations surrounding raw milk farming result from a small handful of incidents, which misrepresent the entire industry. “[The FDA is] doing so much in the name of bad practice,” she said. “Instead of saying you did something bad, I’m going to punish you, they say, you did something bad, I’m going to punish everyone.”

Farmers argue that the sale of raw milk should remain protected because of the incredible health benefits that it offers. “Raw milk is a whole food. You could literally live off of milk products. You’d get bored of the taste, but it’s possible,” said Sparks.

Sparks began homesteading in Chino Valley in 2003. Today, she still rises at 4 a.m. to milk and feed the animals before making the hour commute into Prescott for her full-time job.

As she sipped a home-made strawberry yogurt drink, displaying the confidence she has in her product, Sparks described the difference in the quality of raw milk. “There’s an acceptable level of pus and blood allowed in the milk at the grocery stores. With most family farmers there’s no acceptable level of puss or blood. None. If my cows are sick, they’re treated. And I know when they’re sick because I hand-milk. I milk Sally into one pail. I milk Cookie into another pail. I only use stainless steel. I only use glass to store it in…. My dishwasher is always running on ‘sterilize mode.’” These methods are only part of the long list of procedures Sparks uses to milk her cows in a sterile environment.

“When you introduce a machine, you depersonalize it. When you have food going out to millions of people, it’s depersonalized. If my family’s eating this food, you know damn well it’s good.”

Before the raw milk crackdown, Sparks sold her milk and produce through Community Supported Agriculture, requiring her to collect 16 to 20 gallons per day. Since then, her daily yield has dropped to six or seven gallons per day, most of which she has to discard.

“I make cheese when I can, but I can’t afford to farm… I have a full-time job…. Even in the very best-case scenario of selling what I make, I couldn’t feed the cows with the money,” said Sparks, who spends $600 to $800 per month in feed alone.

Sparks feels that the process to license her cows would be impossible. “The facility I would have to build would be hundreds of thousands of dollars because I would have to create a Grade A dairy. And then I would have to pasteurize!”

Machine-driven technologies dominate the dairy industry in order to keep pace with demand and regulations. Cost-cutting strategies directly affect the living conditions of the livestock and the milk they produce. Cows in these conditions live a fraction of their standard lifespan. Feed consists of soy-based grains which deplete cows and their milk of essential nutrients. The process of pasteurization leaves milk stripped of natural pro-biotic factors.

Sparks moved to Chino Valley to farm after doctors diagnosed her with a thyroid condition and polysistic ovarian syndrome. She suspected that her diet was the contributor to these problems, and conducted a number of personal experiments to determine her reaction to various foods.

“The additives in the beef and pork make me sick. I can’t eat chicken from the grocery store. I can’t drink milk from the grocery store. My thyroid shut down because of all the processed foods,” said Sparks, who is now completely off any medications.

Sparks and other farmers stand by the health benefits of raw milk, despite the increasing restrictions imposed upon their businesses.

Arizona state law prohibits the sale of raw dairy products unless they are dyed blue and labeled as pet food. Due to the high butterfat content of the milk, the blue dye turns the milk an unappealing hue, dissuading consumers from purchasing the milk. If farmers do not comply, the Department of Agriculture can seize all milk products on a farm and issue a court order to prevent future sales of any dairy products.

“So many people fighting all these court battles will lose their farms. This is how they make their living. They don’t have other jobs like I do,” said Sparks. Additional proponents of the ban include lobbyists for big agriculture, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FDA.

Although hesitant to sell their raw milk products, many farmers are not willing to give up producing fresh, raw milk. “You choose this life out of a passion for real food,” said Sparks.

This article appeared in the April 2011 print edition of The Raven Review.
One Response to “FDA cracks down on raw milk farms”
  1. basorge says:

    I’m a microbiologist but I believe nature has it way of making things right. processed food carry a lot of chemicals and most are carcinogenic in large quantities and I believe that’s the reason y there are more cancer cases in developed countries than developing ones. Our ancestors lived on natural products and live longer we live on healthy preserved processed product and see our life span I support your course and I wish you well
    Jos, Nigeria

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