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Raw milk sales will soon be legal in Iowa, joining most of Midwest. But health experts offer caution

Jennifer Harvey's Jersey cow Brew who is due to have calves in a few weeks. Harvey and her family have been drinking raw milk and using it in butter, cheese and even soap for a little more than a year.

Iowa is the latest state to legalize the sale of raw milk, which comes directly from cows without any pasteurization. While nearly every Midwestern state allows such sales, some health experts caution there are health risks to drinking it.

Jennifer Harvey and her family love to drink raw milk. They even use it in the dairy products they make, such as cheese and butter.

“I wouldn’t say it’s overly sweet,” Harvey said, “but it’s sweeter than what you would get in the store.”

It’s been a little more than a year since the family, who live in Peru, Iowa, got two Jersey cows. The family produces a lot of their own food, and Harvey said she wanted access to raw milk with high butterfat content.

Raw milk comes directly from a cow, sheep or goat and hasn’t been pasteurized to remove bacteria that can cause illness. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of raw milk across state lines in 1987 and cautions consumers that harmful bacteria may remain in unpasteurized milk.

But states can make their own laws. Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Illinois allow the sale of raw milk on farms, but with various requirements. Now Iowa is the latest state to legalize selling raw milk directly from farms, to Harvey’s delight.

Jennifer Harvey and her family of Peru, Iowa use raw milk in a lot of their baking and cooking. Jennifer Harvey

Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill into law on Thursday, despite opposition from dairy groups such as the Iowa State Dairy Association and Iowa Dairy Foods Association. The law goes into effect July 1.

Mark McAfee, the chairman and founder of Raw Milk Institute in Fresno, California, says 11 U.S. states, mostly on the coasts, allow raw milk to be purchased at a store. Other states, including North Dakota, have laws about herdshares — agreements between farmers and livestock owners for raw milk and meat.

“We believe that raw milk should be accessible to people,” McAfee said. “But only — and this is super important — only if produced with high standards specific for raw milk for people.”

Midwestern states, McAfee said, have lagged behind the East and West Coasts in legalizing raw milk. “They’re extremely slow,” he said.

McAfee says the benefits of raw milk include decreased rates of asthma, ear infections and common colds.

Health concerns

The Iowa State Dairy Association opposes the sale of raw milk directly to consumers.

Executive Director Mariah Busta said Iowa’s nearly 800 licensed and inspected dairy farms abide by strict guidelines to ensure the pasteurized milk they’re producing is safe for human consumption.

But the standards for selling raw milk, she said, are more lenient than the standards the dairy industry has to follow to get their product to the market.

“Producers selling raw milk will not have to abide by the same quality and safety control measures as our licensed and inspected dairy farms,” Busta said in an email.

The association also worries about the potential health risks of drinking raw milk.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported from 1998-2018, there were more than 200 outbreaks and more than 2,600 outbreak-associated illnesses linked to drinking raw milk. Some health experts caution against drinking it.

Angela Anandappa, the founder of the Alliance for Advanced Sanitation, said she worries state laws that allow raw milk sales put vulnerable people at risk of salmonella, E.coli, or even tuberculosis.

“Primarily children and young children who don’t have the choice to make that decision for themselves,” Anandappa said. “They’re the ones who are going to be exposed to this milk. It’s a public health risk that is opening the door for more and more cases of illness.”

States do regulate the sale of raw milk in an effort to protect consumers. In Illinois, for instance, raw milk producers need a permit from the state’s health department to sell unpasteurized milk on their dairy premises and the milk can only be sold within five days after it’s been produced. In Iowa, the new law states once it’s been seven days since it came from the cow, the raw milk won’t be able to be distributed.

Jennifer Harvey said she and her family have never gotten sick from drinking raw milk. They usually try to drink it within five days of obtaining it from their cows.

“I’ve had it last up to 12 days and been perfectly fine,” Harvey said, “and it had a great taste to it still.”

Still, she has some words of caution for people who might buy raw milk.

“Do your homework and do your due diligence,” she said, “to make sure that you’re getting milk from a reliable source, from someone that’s trustworthy.”

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

Copyright 2023 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.
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Harvest Public Media

Harvest Public Media reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues through a collaborative network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest and Plains.

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