State watching raw-milk dairies closely

VASHON ISLAND – Kelsey Kozack’s kitchen is a dairy wonderland. Fresh cheeses, yogurt and quarts of fresh raw milk abound, all compliments of Iris, a cow that grazes on the family’s 7-acre property.

Just 16, Kelsey has established and run Fort Bantam Creamery from her home on this Puget Sound island west of Seattle.

At first, Kelsey’s parents and sister were the main consumers of her culinary creations from Iris’ raw, unpasteurized milk. Then neighbors got samples, and from there a small but passionate business began. Raw-milk aficionados bought a “share” of Iris for a fee, and Kelsey handled the care, feeding and milking.

“After you’ve been drinking raw milk for a while, you can’t drink store-bought again,” Kelsey said. “It has a lot more flavor and is healthier.”

But the state has taken notice of these small, community-driven models, saying that they need to be licensed and regulated by the state Department of Agriculture or else must stop operations. Recently, the agency has been sending cease-and-desist letters to such small dairies that aren’t licensed, sparking a battle over whether the state has a right to regulate what many consider a private operation.

With only one dairy cow whose milk production is tapering off and a handful of shareholders, the Kozacks don’t consider themselves in the retail business. They also don’t consider themselves rule breakers.

“If they send a letter, we’ll stop,” said Chuck Kozack, Kelsey’s father. “That would be unfortunate. We know the people now, and they really love the product, and we love sharing it. We definitely don’t do it for the money.”

Interest in raw, unpasteurized milk has been on the rise across the nation, part of the growing organic and natural foods movement. Proponents say raw milk is healthier and better tasting than the pasteurized, homogenized milk on supermarket shelves.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration claims that raw milk is dangerous, possibly carrying deadly pathogens such as campolybacter, salmonella and E. coli.

But supporters of raw milk say it’s the victim of a smear campaign.

“Raw milk from healthy animals is the safest milk in the world,” said Ron Schmid, author of “The Untold Story of Milk.”

Selling raw milk for human consumption is legal in 28 states, according to the Weston A. Price Foundation, a raw milk advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. Five states allow raw milk for animal consumption, a loophole that raw milk fans exploit. In some of the remaining states, including Colorado, Virginia and Wisconsin, raw milk is available through cow-share programs.

Numerous cow-share programs exist below government radar.

“We know a lot of small farmers don’t want to pay, or get involved in the bureaucracy,” said Bill Sanda, executive director of the foundation.

In Washington state, raw milk sales are legal if the farm is licensed through the state, which requires monthly testing of the milk and inspection of the farm and milk bottling room.

Also, each bottle must contain a warning label stating “WARNING: This product has not been pasteurized and may contain harmful bacteria. Pregnant women, children, the elderly, and persons with lowered resistance to disease have the highest risk of harm from use of this product.”

Janet Anderberg, public health adviser with the state Department of Health, said there was an E. coli outbreak in 2004 involving three people in Whatcom County tied to illegal raw milk. In 2003, three people in Yakima County and eight in Skagit County became ill from tainted milk.

“No one has died as a result of a raw milk outbreak, but we’ve had some really sick people,” Anderberg said.

The state agency has sent four letters to unlicensed raw dairies across the state in the past several months, said Claudia Coles, program manager of the agency’s food safety program.

Six dairies in the state are licensed to sell Grade A raw milk from goats and cows, Coles said.

“The people who are using a cow-share operation in lieu of being licensed with us are doing so to sidestep licensing criteria,” Coles said.

The criteria for cow shares includes submitting to inspections every three to six months and ensuring that the milking and bottling areas are up to code, which includes having a separate room for bottling the milk, something that Kozacks – who bottle in their house – say is an unreasonable financial burden.

“How worth it is it to have a cow or two if you have to go make a stainless steel kitchen that’s only for bottling the milk and nothing else?” asked Linda Kozack, Kelsey’s mother.

A statewide campaign in support of the raw dairy shareholder has formed under two organizations, Washington Association of Shareholder Dairy Owners and the Raw Dairy Choice Campaign.

“You can’t buy what you already own,” said Chrys Ostrander, organizer of Raw Dairy Choice and co-founder of the shareholder association. “If you’re a shareholder and you can demonstrate that through legal documentation and you contract with the farmer, that’s no different than having your own cows at your own home.”

George Calvert, who operates a cow share out of Calvert’s Castle dairy in Medical Lake southwest of Spokane, received a letter from the state in August. His attorney responded in September, saying they weren’t selling milk and therefore weren’t in violation. So far, the state hasn’t responded.

Calvert charges a $40 one-time fee for a share of the cow; $14 a month covers the boarding, feeding and milking.

“What you’ve got is the state telling you how to run your dairy, instead of the owner of the cows you are accountable to,” Calvert said. “I don’t need the state to tell me how to run my dairy.”

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