While regulators respond to an E. coli outbreak, raw milk fans in Minnesota say the benefits outweigh risk.
Conradine Sanborn of St. Paul refers to supermarket milk as "dead milk."
She avoids it, preferring raw milk from a farm in Gibbon, Minn. She also regularly buys ice cream, meat and eggs from the Gibbon farmer, Michael Hartmann.
Hartmann's farm has become the center of a controversy over raw milk -- that is, milk that hasn't undergone the usual pasteurization treatment to kill illness-causing bacteria.
Last week, regulators said they believed four cases of E. coli O157:H7 were linked to raw milk from the farm. One outbreak victim, a toddler, is hospitalized with a life-threatening condition. Agriculture regulators are also investigating whether Hartmann violated state restrictions on selling raw milk -- something they found him culpable of in 2004.
To public health authorities, raw milk is an anathema, and to state regulators Hartmann is something of a pariah.
But to Sanborn and the growing ranks of raw milk supporters, Hartmann's farm is a paragon of healthy food production. To them, a farm-fresh glass of the unpasteurized stuff is healthier than milk churned out by some giant food company.
Operations like Hartmann's are integral to their food philosophy, which pivots on naturally raised food from small, local growers.
"This is hugely about consumer choice, and I think we need more farmers like Mike Hartmann," said Charlene Chan-Muehlbauer of St. Paul.
Like Sanborn, Chan-Muehlbauer has for several years been a customer of Hartmann, who appears to be a major raw milk purveyor in Minnesota. "I don't know of any other place to get raw milk," Sanborn said.
Interstate sales of raw milk are banned, but more than 20 states allow sales -- usually limited -- of the product. In Minnesota, raw milk is restricted to "occasional" sales directly at the farm where the milk is produced.
Sanborn and Chan-Muehlbauer bought raw milk from Hartmann Dairy through a delivery system that appears common in raw milk circles. They paid Hartmann directly for milk and other food, which was dropped off weekly at a "depot" -- one customer's home -- where it was then distributed to other customers. There are about 15 to 20 families in their distribution group, and apparently multiple distribution depots.
Sanborn, Chan-Muehlbauer and two other members of their distribution group -- all of them professional, middle-class women with children -- elucidated a similar food world view. They shun traditional supermarkets, buying their food largely from coops, farmers markets and Hartmann's farm.
Their goal: Buy as much local and natural food as possible.
"It's a philosophy about how you consume," said Patti Holmes of Falcon Heights, who's been buying Hartmann's products since his pasteurized organic milk was sold in retail stores under the name M.O.M.'s in the 1990s. Those sales appear to have ended after Hartmann lost his state license to produce Grade A milk in 2001.
Hartmann has declined to comment other than through a news release questioning the state's belief that the E. coli outbreak is linked to his raw milk.
But several Hartmann customers say they're not deterred by the E. coli outbreak and have doubts about the state's linking of Hartmann to it.
Devoted to the product
His customers spoke of their distrust of large commercial food operations, views reinforced by "Food Inc.," a recent documentary critical of corporate farming. "Big business and farming -- it's just not healthy," Sanborn said.
Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in food safety cases, said such views are common in the raw milk community nationwide. "As people have gotten more disgusted with the business of agriculture, they keep moving further away," said Marler, who has sued raw milk producers and tangled with raw milk advocates.
"They go organic, but then it becomes a big corporation," he said, referring to big food companies' increasing involvement in the organic business. "Then you start drinking raw milk."
On the Internet, there's plenty of encouragement for raw milk drinkers. Several websites focus on the beverage's purported virtues, including realmilk.com, which also lists places to buy raw milk on a state-by-state basis. The site is an effort of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes traditional foods.
Among its arguments is that pasteurization greatly reduces the components of milk that enhance the immune system. The site lists several health benefits and touts a European study that found raw milk helps protect against allergies and asthma. The foundation's president, Sally Fallon Morell, said raw milk helps grow bones larger and denser, and reduces dental cavities.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the federal agency that investigates diseases, sees things differently. Its website says raw milk is no more healthful than pasteurized milk.
"There is a lot of false information out there about [raw milk's] benefits," said Linda Capewell, a CDC epidemiologist. "There is no scientific evidence of health benefits with raw milk."
She added, "Considering the low prevalence of raw milk consumption, the outbreak of illnesses are really high." Though only about 1 percent of all milk consumed in the United States is raw milk, it causes about 70 percent of all dairy-related illnesses, she said.
From 1993 through 2006, there were 69 outbreaks nationwide related to raw milk, resulting in 1,505 reported illnesses, 185 hospitalizations and two deaths, according to the CDC. In Minnesota, the largest outbreak in recent decades occurred in 1984, when 122 people in Crow Wing County were sickened with a unique form of diarrhea.
The Weston A. Price Foundation disputes the CDC's outbreak findings on raw milk.
Hartmann customers said they're aware of the risks of non-pasteurization, but think they're far outweighed by the benefits. "There's an element of risk every time you eat a vegetable with pesticide on it," Sanborn said.
She and other Hartmann customers say they have no intention of abandoning the Gibbon farmer. While weekly deliveries have stopped, customers can still go to the farm to pick up food, said Chan-Muehlbauer. In fact, on Wednesday she was planning a trip to Gibbon.
Chan-Muehlbauer, who has a master's degree in agronomy, said she's known Hartmann for about 20 years, and that he was one of the state's pioneering organic farmers. She and other Hartman customers said they've never gotten sick and have developed a good relationship with the farmer.
"We've had nothing but high-quality food from them," Chan-Muehlbauer said.
Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003