Most Sundays, Tyrone Mayorga sets out a cooler in the entrance of his West Village walk-up apartment building waiting for a delivery van service to fill it with raw, unpasteurized milk. The quasi-legal beverage comes from a creamery co-op that delivers to customers throughout New York City.
“I drink it for the laundry list of health benefits,” Mayorga, 23, said. “I’m all about a return to raw living [and] natural and sustainable food products, no matter the fat content. I also drink it because I like the idea of keeping small farmers in business, knowing my money is being given to honest, hardworking members of my community.”
Most New Yorkers like Mayorga can’t make the two-hour drive upstate to legally buy raw milk. Instead, they buy it in the city’s thriving black market for this specialty dairy item.
Raw milk comes straight from the cow and is milked into a bulk tank and kept cold, before being bottled and sold. About one third of states nationwide prohibit the sale of it, due to concerns that the unpasteurized product may harbor harmful bacteria. Even in states like New York where it is legal, sales are often restricted to the farm where the milk is produced.
Local cooperatives—called co-ops—have milk routes and make deliveries to apartment doors. So far the state hasn’t had the resources to stop them. Two creamery co-ops servicing the New York City area declined to comment for this story.
For New Yorkers that can make the trek upstate, dairy farms abound. The number of state-approved raw dairy farms has doubled from 10 farms in 2005 to more than 20, according to the state Department of Agriculture and Markets.
The interest among farmers is “mostly driven by consumer demand,” said Kris Danielsen, the department’s culture dairy product specialist.
“There’s also an economic reason,” she said. “The price that farmers are receiving for their milk from pasteurization plants has decreased at the same time that production costs have stayed the same or even increased.”
Directly from the customer, a farmer can receive as much as $10 for a gallon of raw milk—more than double the price of a pasteurized gallon at the local grocery store.
But raw milk advocates aren’t fazed by cost when it’s a matter of health. Many say that it can alleviate allergies, bolster the immune system and provide the body with all of the necessary enzymes to break the milk solids down.
“There is an increasing awareness of the importance of nutrition and some of the things that are being done to factory food,” said Tim Boyd, director of member services for the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring nutrient-dense foods to the American diet.
In addition to the support from such holistic foundations, raw milk has also gained traction on online parenting forums and blogs. Raw milk is increasingly the subject of discussion, as mothers share tips for successful pregnancy and suggestions for raising healthy children.
“I certainly want my family and all other families to have access to this healthful living food humans drank for centuries until industrial farming created unhealthy conditions,” said Jessica Claire, a mother of two, on her blog Crunchy Chewy Mama, which discusses holistic health and parenting.
Despite the outpouring of online support, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control maintain that raw milk is in fact dangerous. The CDC recorded 45 incidents from 1998 through 2005 related to raw milk, accounting for 1,007 illnesses, including diarrhea, vomiting and even kidney failure.
“While it’s possible to get food-borne illness from many different foods, raw milk is one of the riskiest foods of all,” said Casey Barton Behravesh, team lead for the CDC’s outbreak response team. “We also know that a substantial proportion of the raw milk–associated illnesses fall on children.”
Raw milk advocates maintain that the risk of illness is about equal between pasteurized and unpasteurized milk.
“The laws surrounding raw milk are mainly economic regulations disguised as health regulations,” said Pete Kennedy, president of the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit that protects the rights of both producers and consumers, often concerning raw milk. “Milk is kind of at the center of the competition between the conventional food system and the local food system.”