There are many people in Elkhart County who break the law daily when they sit down for dinner. These people become violators when they drink down their daily dose of raw milk.
The law violation comes into play because Indiana bans the sale of raw milk. It’s legal to drink the all-natural product, if you own your own cow that’s providing it. And, many local dairy farm families drink fresh raw milk every day. But they are not supposed to sell raw milk to friends, neighbors or others.
To get around that legal restriction, some farmers sell shares in their dairy herds so consumers can be part owners of a cow and drink the raw milk it produces. David Hochstetler is one of those farmers.
“It’s common. Millions of people in America are drinking raw milk, and they are all OK,” Hochstetler said Thursday night after finishing milking his herd of Jersey cows. “In fact, I think they are healthier than the others.”
Others in Elkhart County doubt the wisdom of drinking raw milk.
“The fact is that there are 14 or more diseases or bacteria that can be in raw milk and you can’t see, smell or taste them,” said Mary Ann Lienhart Cross, Purdue Extension director for Elkhart County. “So, I don’t understand why people want to put themselves at risk when the little bit of nutrition that changes in milk from when we pasteurize it from raw is minute. There is not the extreme health advantage that people think there is.”
The issue for Hochstetler extends beyond just the consumption. He has been targeted by the Food and Drug Administration since 2007 for providing raw milk to consumers. A subpoena was issued for him in late 2011 to appear before a federal grand jury in Detroit. The FDA wanted him to testify about his sales of raw milk. One of his customers was a buying co-op in Vandalia, Mich. In 2010 the Michigan Department of Health claimed that co-op and Hochstetler’s raw milk were responsible for an outbreak of campylobacter in 13 humans. Campylobacter is a bacteria that causes nausea, fever and diarraha. Hochstetler denied that claim and refused to testify. The subpeona was withdrawn.
In December 2011 Elkhart County Sheriff Brad Rogers got involved and backed Hochstetler, warning FDA officials they needed a signed court order before they could inspect Hochstetler’s farm.
“We haven’t heard anything about anyone since December,” Rogers said Wednesday. “We are staying vigilant.”
For Rogers and Hochstetler the consumption of raw milk is about rights granted to all Americans.
“I think it is important to protect peoples’ liberties — to make a choice on what they eat or drink,” the sheriff said.
Rogers said he has logged into the Indiana Board of Animal Health’s website to offer his comments on changes in the state’s law governing consumption of raw milk.
“We all know there are risks with anything we do in life, especially driving,” Rogers said. “But it should be up to the person involved.”
Hochstetler is Amish and has not participated in the online public comment effort. But he, like Rogers, believes personal rights are involved.
“The educated consumer needs to have the freedom of choice,” Hochstetler said as he leaned on the top, rough-sawn rail of his cattle pen fence. “I think the consumer needs to voice their opinion. It’s the consumer searching to find the product, not the farmer finding the consumer. We never advertised. It’s all word of mouth.”
Reason for pasteurization
Six miles to the west of Hochstetler’s small dairy farm, Don Zimmerman was busy Friday morning checking off health items on a form for each of his 200-plus Holstein dairy cows. Across the holding pen Dr. Robert Zell was moving from cow to cow checking their pregnancy status and giving Zimmerman the health facts on each animal.
As a veterinarian, Zell knows dairy cows inside and out — literally — and his recommendation to consumers is not to drink raw milk.
“There is a reason we are pasteurizing,” he said. “All milk contains bacteria.”
He admitted that when he was a youngster he drank raw milk on his family’s farm. But he said that practice is a lot different than buying raw milk and storing it in a refrigerator for several days, the same as if it was pasteurized and purchased at a grocery.
“We had fresh milk every 12 hours,” he said, referring to the milking cycle for dairy farms. “Unpasteurized milk is not the same after four days.”
“If people want to drink raw milk, then they should keep a cow in their backyard and get milk every day, or go to Dave Hochstetler’s and get it every day,” Zell said.
Zell praised Hochstetler’s operation, saying he has one of the cleanest milking parlors in the county.
Still, he doesn’t recommend consumers drink raw milk.
“Milk is an excellent food for us,” he said. “But it is also an excellent food for bacteria.”