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Got raw milk? Despite health concerns, Pennsylvania, Delaware and even New Jersey look to loosen regulations

When a dairy cow as big as a concert piano fell on Layne Klein’s leg about 20 years ago, he wound up with a lot of time to ponder the future of his family farm.

“I had two kids in college, two in high school, and a son on his way to college. We were short on feed and the milk price stunk like it always does,” Klein said on his Northampton County, Pennsylvania, farm recently. “So we sold our milking cows and decided to try going smaller instead.”

Klein, who broke his fibula and dislocated his ankle in the accident, decided to get a Pennsylvania raw milk license for Klein Farms in Easton. He’s been selling gourmet raw milk cheese and raw milk there since 2004.

Raw milk enthusiasts describe its flavor as “grassy” and “creamier.” It typically sells at a higher cost, and Klein said the transition saved the farm.

“If you do it correctly, it’s a fantastic product,” he said.

Milk that is unpasteurized, or raw, remains controversial in Pennsylvania and beyond. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration says raw milk “can harbor dangerous germs that can pose serious health risks.” The Centers for Disease Control, citing the appearance of bird flu in the United States, also recommends against drinking unpasteurized milk.

“Anyone, even healthy adults, can get sick from drinking raw milk,” the CDC warns on a recently updated raw milk webpage.

Raw milk devotees and detractors go back and forth on TikTok, commenting on one another’s videos about the merits of pasteurization, which is the process of heating milk to destroy potentially harmful microbes.

“There is no evidence at all to suggest that raw milk is more beneficial to you than pasteurized is. One of them is pasteurized and the other one can kill you,” a TikTok user named @microbiologywes said in a video.

115 raw milk farms

Across the U.S., however, more states are discussing loosening restrictions on raw milk production or sales. Only three states have outright bans on all raw milk products. In Pennsylvania, where raw milk sales require a license and testing, state Rep. Dave Zimmerman, R-99th, introduced a bill recently aimed at letting farmers sell additional raw milk products beyond milk and cheese, including yogurt and ice cream.

“There’s a huge movement throughout our nation, especially among younger generations, who want more natural, organic products with less processing and chemicals,” Zimmerman said. “What I want is to keep farmers in business, especially small dairies, by letting them sell more raw products.”

Even in New Jersey, where it’s only legal to use raw milk in pet food (a lucrative market), agriculture leaders have recently expressed an openness to discussing raw milk for human consumption.

“I believe you can test and monitor enough to bring a safe product to market,” Ed Wengryn, the state’s secretary of agriculture, said during a May 7 budget hearing.

Consumers, he said, are free to purchase and eat other raw foods, including seafood and vegetables.

Pennsylvania has close to 5,000 dairy farms and, according to the state’s Department of Agriculture, has 115 raw milk permit holders. Applicants for that permit must pass rigorous health and safety inspections of their herds and water supplies. Their product must also be tested biannually for foodborne pathogens.

A Pennsylvania Dairymen’s Association spokeswoman said the organization had no position on raw milk.

Many raw milk licensees In Pennsylvania say the state’s tight restrictions and adherence to pasteurization are from a much different, more dangerous time in the dairy world.

“The raw milk laws are antiquated. Raw milk was labeled as ‘dangerous’ before refrigeration, cars, and modern testing.” Marie Reedell, the manager of Miller’s Bio Farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, said in an email. “We’ve got to change with the times.”

In January, Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture filed a lawsuit against Amos Miller Organic Farm, in Bird-in-Hand, Lancaster County, alleging the farm was selling raw milk products tied to illnesses in several states. (Miller, who has not obtained a permit, has argued that because he sells his milk through a private membership group, the state’s regulations should not apply to him. The case is ongoing.)

A raw deal

At Klein Farms, where Layne Klein was busy spreading hay in a barn on a recent weekday afternoon, he estimates they sell about 600 to 650 gallons of raw milk a week, wholesale. He also makes a slew of different cheeses, which have to age for 60 days in a walk-in freezer on his farm. Klein said he’s not concerned with making more raw milk products because he’s busy enough, but believes there’s too much fearmongering over the issue.

“There was a time when people milked cows by hand over open buckets and there was no refrigeration and cows had poor nutrition,” he said. “It’s a different time. I pride myself on having clean cows.”

Klein’s farm is just a few miles west of the Delaware River and many customers cross state lines to buy his product. He’s not concerned with New Jersey rethinking raw products.

“I mean, raw milk makes up about 2% of dairy in Pennsylvania, so the number of farms in New Jersey that would do this would be minimal,” he said.

New Jersey has 34 dairy farms, according to the state’s Department of Agriculture. A spokesman for the New Jersey Farm Bureau said raw products “are not a priority” for the organization.

When Wengryn discussed raw milk during the budget hearing last month, he was answering a question from Sen. Mike Testa, a Republican, from rural Cumberland County. Testa told The Inquirer that constituents have asked him to push for raw milk, one of them being Misty Meadows Sheep Dairy in Woodbine. Bill Simmerman, the farm’s owner, sells pasteurized sheep’s milk, cheeses, and yogurts but he’d love to move into raw products.

“We’ve lost so many small dairies in this state because of the rules and regulations pasteurization requires,” Simmerman said. “My facility is perfectly clean.”

Simmerman’s 16-acre farm is for sale, for $2.4 million.

In Delaware, the situation is worse. According to BaytoBayNews.com, there are about 13 dairy farms left in the state. The state, according to the news organization, recently passed a bill to call on the Department of Agriculture there to create a raw milk permit for Delaware dairy farmers.

In New Jersey, when Testa asked Wengryn if he’d be willing to work with him on raw milk legislation, the agriculture secretary smiled.

“I think my health commissioner and I are going to have to have a long, deep conversation about that,” Wengryn said. “But yes, I’m willing to have a conversation.”

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