RECLUSE, Wyo. — A brown cow named Now munched quietly on a bucket of grain inside a log barn just south of the Montana border.
Now’s owner, Frank Wallis, cleaned her udders and attached a 3 ½-gallon stainless steel milker. He flipped a switch and the machine began to hum. Less than a half hour later, Now’s milk was chilling in large Mason jars, ready for consumption. There was no pasteurization, no fancy bottling machines or dairy trucks.
“Healthy cows on healthy pastures make the best milk in the world,” said Wallis, who goes by Farmer Frank.
In December, Wyoming lifted its prohibition on raw-milk sales. Ranchers such as Wallis can now sell directly to consumers through what are called herd-share agreements. Under such arrangements, customers help pay for the animal’s care in exchange for a share of its milk.
It remains illegal for grocery stores to sell raw milk in Wyoming. Lawmakers want to study whether to change that. Legislative leaders have asked their Joint Agriculture Interim Committee to spend the remainder of the year exploring options for retail sales of unpasteurized dairy products.
The committee plans to examine how neighboring states regulate raw milk. If legislators conclude another state’s laws might work in Wyoming, they could draft a bill for the 2014 session, said the group’s chairman, Sen. Gerald Geis, R-Worland.
But given the health questions associated with unpasteurized milk, there are no guarantees.
“I have a lot of concerns,” Geis said. “But we can only protect people so much from themselves.”
Raw or pasteurized
Most people drink milk that’s been heated to kill harmful bacteria. Health experts credit the process, called pasteurization, with preventing millions of illnesses.
Growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, Geis saw people fall ill and even die from drinking raw milk. He’s interested in finding a way to end the lengthy debate over raw milk, but worries about the consequences.
“It is a real health concern,” he said.
The health risks haven’t dulled interest in raw milk. Some people simply prefer its taste to its store-bought counterpart. Others say it has health benefits not found in store-bought milk.
Pasteurization removes or damages Vitamin D and calcium in the milk, Wallis explained. Dairy companies have to add that stuff back in and the stuff they’re adding isn’t always natural, he said.
“What they’re replacing it with is not nearly as healthy as Mother Nature intended it to be,” he said.
Past attempts to allow retail raw milk sales have failed in the Legislature. State health officials worry legalizing it would result in more illness.
“There really isn’t any logical dispute to the data that shows raw milk is a health risk,” state Epidemiologist Dr. Tracy Murphy said.
The doctor doesn’t question whether families should be able to consume milk from their own animals. But retails sales increase the time between production and consumption, creating opportunities for dangerous organisms to proliferate, he said.
“If there are people who own dairy farms and they are able to handle raw milk in a way that minimizes the risk to their family and they are able to consume it quickly, we are certainly not against anybody's right to do that,” he said. “But when it's sold, then you have the whole issue of putting other people at risk.”
Wallis began his herd-share operation more than three years ago. He claims none of his customers have been sickened by raw milk.
After milking the cows, Wallis or an assistant runs the liquid through a filter. He examines the filter for dirt, hair or other matter. If anything is seen, the entire batch is thrown out.
Once a month, Wallis sends a milk sample to a Colorado lab. It is examined for salmonella, E. coli, listeria and other pathogens, he said. The lab even counts platelets to determine whether the cows are healthy.
The test results have always been clean, Wallis said.
“We’re very careful with our milk,” he said.
Health concerns persist
Murphy remains convinced that raw milk represents a public health threat. He cites a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found raw milk is 150 times as likely as processed milk to cause illness.
A testing regimen doesn’t eliminate the possibility of illness, he added. An animal may shed organisms at only certain times, raising the possibility of contamination despite testing.
“It’s just a snapshot that is really not reflective of what goes on routinely,” he said.
Those concerns haven’t thwarted the raw milk movement. Earlier this year, lawmakers stopped a bill that would have allowed sales of raw milk produced by small herds of animals. The milk study increases the likelihood that a similar bill will succeed in the future, said Sen. John Hastert, the Green River Democrat who sponsored the bill.
Hastert wrote his legislation after hearing from constituents who grew up drinking raw milk. They hold a viewpoint common in a libertarian-leaning state like Wyoming. Even if raw milk is more likely to cause illness, shouldn’t consumers decide what to put in their bodies?
“If we accept the risk and we want it, we should be able to get it,” he said, summing up their view.
Wallis is taking a wait-and-see approach to the Legislature’s study of raw milk regulation. Perhaps the Legislature will help people with raw milk herds. Perhaps it will hurt them, he said, noting that Hastert’s bill would have limited the number of cows in a herd.
Either way, Wallis doesn’t think he’d change his operation.
“I think I’d stay with the cow shares,” he said. “We have a group of 90 people who love what we do.”