Raw milk advocates push back against state officials

Milk raid
An unidentified Minnesota Department of Agriculture official loads a vehicle with raw milk products from the Hartman farm in this still from a video posted to YouTube. The milk products were being delivered to a home in Minnetonka when they were intercepted.

Raw milk drinkers are angry over the state's raid and confiscation of hundreds of gallons of raw milk at a drop site in the Twin Cities this week.

They want the government to legalize sales of unpasteurized milk, and they're taking a wide range of positions on how to work toward that goal, everything from legislative action to civil disobedience.

No one is certain how many raw milk drinkers there are in Minnesota, but there's no doubting their passion.

The latest debate was touched off Tuesday when the Minnesota Agriculture Department seized about 400 gallons of milk at a drop site in Minnetonka.

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The milk came from the Michael and Roger Hartmann dairy farm near Gibbon. The Minnesota Department of Health has linked raw milk products from the farm to food-borne illnesses that have sickened 15 people.

But Hartmann still enjoys the passionate support of raw milk adherents such as Ed Davis, who lives in St. Paul and has been a regular Hartmann customer. He has a half gallon now of their raw milk in his refrigerator.

"I've been drinking it as we talk," Davis said. "And it's just a nice, thick, beautiful drink."

Davis says he and other people who want to consume raw milk feel the state lacks proof raw milk caused the disease outbreaks. They say the state is unfairly stopping them from buying what they see as a healthy product.

"I just want the opportunity to be able to have this product available," he said.

The fight over raw milk is going on all over the country. Some states allow sales in stores, others ban the product completely. In Minnesota, the only legal place to sell unpasteurized milk is on the farm where it's produced, which requires the consumer to travel to the farm.

Davis and others contend raw milk contains bacteria and other microbes that improve digestion and help fight off disease. Pasteurization, they say, kills those beneficial components.

"The passion comes from the fact that we want to go back to what we would call real food," Davis said, "or food that is more wholesome and has higher quality."

The Minnesota Health Department disputes those sorts of assertions, calling raw milk 'a serious health risk', possibly harboring pathogens like E. coli, salmonella and others. They say the people sickened by Hartmann's milk had the same rare strain of E. coli found on the Hartmann farm.

Raw milk supporters say that strain was never found in Hartmann's milk. They say while they accept the risks associated with the product, they believe they're offset by health benefits.

Twin Cities resident Susan Grzeskowiak said she was stunned when she heard about the Hartmann milk confiscation. She drinks raw milk and said she's never been sick.

Grzeskowiak said she'd like to see the state legislature ease the restrictions on raw milk sales and make it easier for consumers to buy the product.

"People do have a right to choose," she said. "That again goes back to legislation and education and back to our constitutional rights."

There are some in the raw milk camp who are calling for stronger action. On his blog "The Complete Patient," David Gumpert wrote: "The time has come to stand up in groups, and make them arrest us with our milk".

Another advocate, attorney Gary Wood of the Foundation for Consumer Free Choice is threatening to seek court sanctions on state officials for overstepping their authority, and there are other rumblings about civil disobedience.

Hartmann's legal fate remains undecided. State officials implied they view Hartmann as knowingly selling a product that makes people sick, but they have not identified whether the milk they confiscated was in fact raw milk.