Illegal Substances: Raw Milk’s Secret Buying Clubs

Raw milk might be great-tasting and good for your health, but it’s still seriously inconvenient.

raw_milkWhen the Greenmarket opened in 1976, Union Square was better known as a place to score heroin than heirloom produce. Though it’s outgrown its nickname, Needle Park, New Yorkers still come here looking to score an illegal substance: raw milk.

Sure, these days most pints at the Greenmarket or grocery store dairy case boast labels like “pastured” and “unhomogenized.” But by law, every drop of that stuff has been pasteurized— heated to just below a boil, usually 161 degrees F.

While that quick cooking kills nasty bacteria like listeria and E. coli, it also seriously changes the taste, and, crusaders swear, destroys milk’s natural health-giving properties, which evidently make the Fountain of Youth look like Vitaminwater.

Claudia Keel gets about 10 e-mails a week from New Yorkers seeking raw milk. The 48-year-old native New Yorker runs the NYC chapter of the Weston Price Foundation—a nonprofit named for an early 20th-century dentist who studied traditional diets around the world and found that people with the best teeth ate plenty of animal fats. Price’s acolytes regard raw milk as a health-giving panacea, and say state laws banning it are worth crying over.

So the organization has made its availability a cornerstone cause and maintains the site realmilk.com, which lists, by state, sources for milk that is grass-fed, full-fat and raw. Because New York law bans the sale of raw milk except by certified farms (which may only sell raw milk on the farm property) and because the federal government bans the carrying of raw milk over state lines (which is particularly vexing to New Yorkers who would like to buy raw milk from nearby dairies in Connecticut and Pennsylvania), Keel explains two urban options: You can join a milk club, where members take turns making weekly farm runs to get the goods, or you can buy a share in a cow and reap dividends from “your” animal in the form of free raw butter, cream or milk.

Either way, members or farmers then make secret deliveries to borough back doors, dropping off plastic milk jugs or curvy glass bottles in cardboard boxes that get divvied by hand when members arrive to claim their contraband. New York City is home to at least 19 of these independent milk clubs—theoretically legal groups that have found a loophole in, or simply flout, the law. Their memberships range from 30 to 1,000 buyers. All quietly operate on little more than handshakes and cash, hoping that neither the government, nor E. coli, crashes the party.

It’s far more effort than a grabbing a gallon at the deli, but people who are rah-rah for raw say it’s well worth the work. Many are taken with the pure, unadulterated flavor, and it’s easy to see why: Pasteurization can seriously alter taste. Raw milk is a luscious, fatty flavor-bomb with a buttery color from ivory to gold, deeply redolent of the pasture it comes from—sweet, green, nutty, animal. It’s an undeniable reminder that milk comes from a mammal’s teat, which is great or gross, according to your palate. And once you’ve tasted it, pouring UHT milk (industry lingo for shelf-stable dairy that’s been pasteurized at ultra-high temperatures) on your morning cereal will taste dreary as hell.

But pleasure isn’t the only point. Price’s disciples say pasteurization destroys powerful probiotic properties that can strengthen the immune system against all sorts of things from acne and allergies to eczema and the common cold, to name a few. Pay no mind to that FDA official warning of pathogens, say proponents, insisting those are widespread among industrial dairies but rare in the products of traditional livestock farmers who tend small, healthy, grass-fed herds.

“The biggest misconception about raw milk is that it’s dirty,” says Keel. She explains that her kind would never want raw milk from conventional dairies, which keep grain-fed cattle in crowded quarters. That would be like digging into steak tartare of raw supermarket meat from factory farm castoffs. (Frankly, raw milk leaflets can make it sound like what comes out of conventional dairies isn’t safe to drink raw or pasteurized.) Like feedlot beef, mainstream milk must be heated to high temperatures not, they say, because raw meat or milk is inherently unhealthful, but because industrial bigger-faster-cheaper-more factories include more than you bargained for in the final package. (Things like, as Fast Food Nation put it so pithily, shit.) So much for better living through technology. Keel says choosing raw milk is about putting trust in the small farmer, rather than in industrial processing.

The more raw-milk drinkers I interviewed, the clearer it became that patronizing a different system is as important a motivation as taste or health. One cheerful single mom, raised in the West Village and now the proud owner of a life-coaching business, told me that, yes, raw milk might have alleviated her daughter’s eczema. “But,” she added, “that’s not the only reason I joined the milk club!” Dismayed by the widespread closure and consolidation of independent farms who have no say in the federally set price of wholesale milk (and often lose money for every 12-hour day they work), she says it feels right to buy directly from small farmers, rather than let most of her dollar get taken by middlemen like processors and retailers. And many simply take an anti-government approach that’s more libertarian than locavore. As author Nina Kaufelt (née Planck) wrote in an e-mail, “The nutritional choice is clear: If you live by the maxim, ‘Eat foods that spoil, but eat them before they do,’ then raw milk is the superior choice.The wider cultural question is this: Do Americans have the freedom to farm? Do we have the freedom to produce, to consume and to sell—with objective and reasonable restrictions—real food?”

At least 1 percent of Americans feel we should have those freedoms (and these 3 million seem very different than the 1 percent targeted by the Occupy movement). Like Keel and Kaufelt, they’re hopeful that someday everyone will be able to buy a quart of the good stuff without having to break the law.

Illustration by Tae Won Yu

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Tejal Rao spent formative years in a hard-to-pronounce French village called Saint-Cyr-sur-Morin and moved to Atlanta as a teenager. She is still haunted by the face of the man at Customs who seized her homemade terrines in the summer of 1998.