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The war on milk

cows
Photo by Louisa Podlich for Thirty Two Magazine
Diving into the raw milk underground, Emily Sohn discovers an unlikely alliance of suburban parents, health-conscious foodies and farmers who believe milk is best when served directly from teat to table.

Around nine o’clock on a cold Wednesday morning in early March 2011, Alvin Schlangen pulled his white delivery van into a parking lot between a snow-covered athletic field and a vegetarian housing co-op near Macalester College in St. Paul. As soon as he parked, two police cars and a third unmarked car drove in, trapping him there.

cover of winter-spring edition of 'thirty two' magazineSchlangen was not expecting this, at least not today. Nonetheless, he was prepared. On the sliding door of the van’s passenger side, he had attached a no-trespassing sign, which read: “PRIVATE – Not a Public Area! Warning to ALL State and Federal Officials and Informants: You must have an appointment and permission from the owner to enter.”

Four cops and two Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) officials stepped out of the cars to confront Schlangen, who was sitting behind the steering wheel, calling his point-person to announce his arrival at the site. When he emerged, he says, the officers tried to convince him to let them into the vehicle, suggesting that there would be legal consequences if he didn’t. “I don’t think so,” he told them, his square jaw and blue eyes steady with trust in his rights under the law. “You’re not going to enter the vehicle without my permission.”

The standoff continued for ten minutes, as Schlangen remembers it. Despite his refusal to budge, the search team opened the back door, where they saw a bag of oranges and a bag of grapefruit sitting in front of a large white structure that blocked their view into the interior. Citrus wasn’t exactly what they were looking for. But the fruits were clearly not Minnesota crops, Schlangen says, and that was evidence enough to get them a search warrant.

The St. Paul police didn’t file a report that day and the MDA refused to answer questions about the case. But the search warrant details a yearlong history of conflict between Schlangen and the MDA, giving the department reasonable cause to suspect he was conducting illegal activity out of the van. Once inside the vehicle, it didn’t take them long to find refrigerators filled with cold, raw milk alongside raw butter, cream and kefir, as well as eggs and other foods ordered by members of Schlangen’s buying club, Freedom Farms Coop.

The raw dairy is what initially put the agriculture department on Schlangen’s trail that morning. In Minnesota, after all, milk straight from the cow is allowed to change hands only on the farms it comes from—a law meant to protect people from deadly bacteria that can grow in the unheated liquid. Yet, week after week, Schlangen had been waking up early to pick up loads of unpasteurized contraband from a neighbor’s farm, driving nearly two hours to the Twin Cities and unloading the goods into garages around the metro area so that members of his club could pick up their weekly supplies.

Schlangen’s milk-drinking network has its own interpretation of the law and an organizational structure that they believe makes what they’re doing legal. But a recent high-profile outbreak of E. coli had prompted a series of crackdowns on underground raw-milk delivery networks around the state. Now, it was Schlangen’s turn to face the music.

After a tow-truck hauled his van off to the Department of Agriculture, Schlangen climbed into one of the police cars to follow behind. While he waited, the Department of Agriculture raided an industrial warehouse space in Minneapolis that Schlangen’s group leased, where they seized five thousand dollars worth of food.

That bust led to a jury trial in Hennepin County court this fall. Preceded by months of rallies, demonstrations and awareness-raising potlucks, the trial would draw the attention of thousands of raw-milk consumers around the country who remain locked in fervent battles for what they believe are their basic “food rights.”

Later that afternoon, when Schlangen got his van back, all that was left inside were the bags of fruit.
In his eyes and those of his supporters, it wasn’t just the food that was gone. He had also been robbed of his freedom.

***

It has been a tough couple of years for raw-milk drinkers in Minnesota. First came the case of the Hartmann Dairy Farm in Gibbon, where, in the spring of 2010, the state linked eight cases of a rare strain of E. coli to raw milk. Over the next few months, a series of crackdowns ensued, beginning with the Hartmann distribution network and spreading to Schlangen’s—both highly organized systems that, for years, have delivered unpasteurized dairy products and other foods to drop-sites around Minneapolis and St. Paul. Since then, officials have seized food from delivery routes, visited drop-site coordinators and called at least one restaurant owner who mentioned a raw-milk event on her business’ Facebook page.

Exact numbers of people who prefer unpasteurized milk, and who often refer to it as “real milk” rather than raw, are not routinely counted, but experts estimate that as many as one to three percent of Americans drink raw milk or eat foods made from it either regularly or occasionally. Those numbers, based in part on results of a 2007 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that asked people whether they’d eaten certain foods in the previous week, amounts to as many as 160,000 Minnesotans and nine million Americans who are affected by raw milk laws. And demand for both the milk and easier access to it seems to be growing, according to farmers, drop-site coordinators, managers of e-mail lists and Department of Agriculture officials.

For now, only twelve states allow the sale of raw milk on store shelves. Twenty states ban it outright. The rest, like Minnesota, restrict the liquid’s trade in various ways. But in the last two years, more than a dozen state legislatures have considered legislation that would make raw milk easier to acquire. So has the federal government: since May 2011, the U.S. House Energy & Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health has had on its plate a proposal to legalize the traffic of raw milk across state lines.

Minnesota’s proposals to legalize distribution systems such as Schlangen’s fizzled last spring, but momentum will likely build again as State Senator Sean Nienow plans to introduce new legislation in January. “Almost everyone knows someone who drinks raw milk,” says Nienow, a Republican in District 17, about sixty miles north of St. Paul. “Proponents came to me and said, ‘We’ve got this law we want to change.’ It makes sense to me. It’s about personal responsibility. Who’s the government to say, ‘Hi, I’m here to protect you from yourself?’”

Members of the “milk underground” make passionate arguments that extol the health benefits of their dairy of choice. But what gets many supporters really riled up is the question of food rights. Movements for philosophies like Slow Food, Real Food and Farm-to-Table Food seem like quaint and passive pastimes next to the politically combative and borderline militant aura of the Food Freedom movement. On the front lines, these fighters often deploy anti-government rhetoric, referring to escalating crackdowns as evidence of an overbearing nanny state and citing incidents like one in Bloomington, Minn., where inspectors arrived at a suburban home early one morning, startling a mom after she climbed out of the shower and dragging her teenage sons out of bed before searching the family’s refrigerators.

“The regulators in Minnesota have gone after this almost with joy or glee, and they have kind of welcomed the fight,” says David Gumpert, author of The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America’s Emerging Battle Over Food Rights. “They seem to be really enjoying themselves in trying to stamp these raw milk drinkers out.”

Rather than beating Minnesota’s raw-milk drinkers into pasteurized submission, the “rampage” has simply driven them deeper underground, brought them closer together and made them more determined than ever to continue doing what they’re doing. As it grows and unites disparate groups of people on both political extremes in the Midwest and beyond, the fight for food rights is gaining steam from roots in a deep mistrust of big government, big money, and big science. It seems fitting somehow that the battle is bubbling up over something as mundane and ubiquitous as the stuff we pour into our bowls of breakfast cereal.

***

It’s quarter past five on a Thursday morning in September when I drive along a dirt road through complete darkness to a red dairy barn in Todd County, Minn., 125 miles northwest of my Minneapolis home. In the bright beams of my car’s headlights, I watch a cow saunter by before I cut the engine, step out into the pre-dawn chill and stumble towards a loud, rhythmic noise wafting out of a corner of the barn. It’s so dark outside that I have to use the light of my iPhone to get to the door of a small room, where I find a bearded young farmer hand-pumping a machine that separates raw cream intended for human consumption from skim milk, which he’ll feed to his pigs and chickens. Samuel—whose name I’ve changed to protect him against the rising tide of raw-milk persecution—rose as usual at 4:30 a.m. to milk his farm’s ten cows to the light of the headlamp strapped around his straw hat. Since he’s Amish, his 120 acres operate off the electrical grid.

When he’s done with this batch of separating, Samuel walks to the other side of the barn, where he sits on an upturned plastic bucket beneath the udders of a black-and-white Holstein named Daisy. To the chorus of cackling roosters, flapping chicken wings and an occasional sleepy “Moo,” he hand-squeezes the last milk of the morning into a metal bucket that rings as each swish of milk lands inside. With a sliver of pink just beginning to lighten the sky, he returns to the small processing room, where he pours the fresh milk into a ten-gallon metal tank equipped with an apparatus of tubes that immediately cool the liquid using water from an attached garden house. The roads nearby soon get busy with horse-drawn carriages delivering children to school.

As much as I want to love this idyllic scene, I wonder about the elephant on the farm: The throngs of bacteria that lurk everywhere—not just in pastoral barns like this one but on every surface of everything we touch, including our own skin. Invisible to the naked eye, these microbes form the crux of the raw-milk wars. Some are harmless, but others have the ability to wreak havoc on our guts, our immune systems and our lives.

In the 1920s, when routine pasteurization of milk began in the U.S., rates of tuberculosis, scarlet fever, typhoid fever, and other infections transmitted through milk dropped dramatically. Milk went from being the country’s number one food-safety problem to being a safe food, says Barbara Mahon, a medical epidemiologist at the CDC in Atlanta.

Raw-milk advocates say that history is irrelevant today because cows are kept in much cleaner environments now than they were in the 1920s, when rapid industrialization made conditions especially unsanitary. “Pasteurized milk is one of the greatest public health disasters in history,” says Sally Fallon Morell, founding president of the Weston A. Price Foundation—an activist organization that supports raw milk as well as other “nutrient-dense whole foods and the vital fat-soluble activators found exclusively in animal fats.” She was speaking to a packed conference room at the third annual International Raw Milk Symposium in Bloomington in May of 2011. “It has destroyed the most nutrient dense and important food we have for growing children. Getting raw milk during that period of growth can make the difference between a healthy productive life and a miserable life.”

Certainly, the bacteria issue is complex. In a slew of recent papers in high-profile science journals, researchers associated with the Human Microbiome Project have begun to reveal how the ecosystems in our digestive systems, on our skin and throughout our bodies can influence our health in a surprising number of ways, from our risks of obesity to our chances of developing rheumatoid arthritis. The bacteria that inhabit us outnumber our own cells ten to one, and advocates of raw milk often bring up the microbiome to explain why pasteurization is a bad idea. While the heating process may kill harmful bacteria that can cause complications ranging from diarrhea to death, they argue that pasteurization also destroys potentially helpful probiotic bacteria as well as important enzymes and vitamins that help our bodies fight off pathogenic bacteria and digest fats and calcium, among other nutrients.

Even as the battle between good and evil bacteria remains contentious in milk, fallout from the bad guys is all too easy to quantify: From 1987 to September 2010, according to data compiled by the Food and Drug Administration, raw milk caused at least 133 outbreaks of foodborne disease in the U.S., leading to 2,659 illnesses, 269 hospitalizations, three deaths, six stillbirths and two miscarriages. Sip per sip, unpasteurized products cause about 150 times more illnesses and outbreaks compared to cases of contamination that happen after pasteurization, found a study published last February in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases. And after analyzing all dairy-related outbreaks reported in the U.S. between 1993 and 2006, the CDC scientists who conducted the study found that sixty percent of dairy-related outbreaks came from consumption of raw products even though just a tiny fraction of the country’s dairy supply is unpasteurized. Outbreaks caused by raw milk also disproportionately affect children, Mahon says, and they tend to cause more severe illnesses.

“When I look at reports of what is in raw milk in terms of bacterial content, I see a lot of shit bacteria, including ones that can kill people,” says Lance Price, a public health microbiologist at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “When you look at the fecal bacteria in the milk and then you see things like lactobacillus, which people call the good bacteria, I have to say, ‘Is drinking the shit bacteria worth it to get these lactobacillus when I could get lactobacillus from eating pasteurized yogurt cultivated with lactobacillus?’”

Even when a cow doesn’t appear to be sick, her skin crawls with bacteria that can include dangerous ones. Sometimes, milk emerges from the udder already contaminated. In one case in Massachusetts, a group of researchers from multiple institutions conducted a lengthy investigation into a 1998 Salmonella outbreak in children who had sampled raw milk on a farm tour. The team finally traced the outbreak to a single cow that had a Salmonella-infected abscess inside one of her four teats. “Although the standards of hygiene have improved,” Mahon says, “nothing can be done, short of pasteurization, to make sure milk is safe.”

Questions about whether raw milk is harmful or healthful infuriate Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, who sees the debate as part of a rise in anti-science sentiments rumbling throughout society. “This is really a throwback to the fact that science is no longer a leading factor in making public policy,” he says. “There are people who deny that the Earth is round, but think of how foolish you would feel if you asked me: Is this Earth round? Study this in more detail. It’s not even a debate. It’s not even something close to a debate. The data are overwhelming on the safety of pasteurized milk and the lack of safety of unpasteurized milk.”

Devotees remain undeterred. They point out that eggs, undercooked meats, fruits and even peanut butter cause more problems than raw milk does without inciting the same kind of harassment that raw milk gets. The 2,659 illnesses attributed to raw milk over a period of 23 years breaks down to about 115 people sickened each year. But each year, one in six Americans, or 48 million people, fall ill and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases, according to the CDC, which does not calculate numbers of people sickened by any given food in an illness-per-serving kind of way, making it virtually impossible to compare the risks of one product to another. Given the uncertainty, advocates focus on absolute numbers instead of the fraction of people who eat a food who are sickened by it. What they ignore, critics say, is that there are also far more people who consume those foods than there are raw-milk drinkers. If raw milk were to become readily available on store shelves around the country, they worry, total numbers of illnesses could skyrocket among people who might not even realize they were taking risks by drinking it.

Even though they often acknowledge a rise in potential health concerns from raw milk, most people who drink it have never become ill, and the vast majority never will. Many even claim to feel better than ever, especially if they adopt other beneficial health habits as part of their switch to raw milk. Those anecdotes become powerful as they reverberate through a community. In often-told stories of raw milk’s curative powers, it is said to circumvent lactose intolerance, reduce rates of asthma, allergies and Crohn’s disease, and to have the potential to treat everything from cancer to infertility to autism to the flu. (To support these claims, advocates refer to plenty of studies, which in an endless game of citational ping-pong, scientists criticize and refute with other studies that they say are more thoroughly done and carefully controlled.)

Raw-milk drinkers also point to the processed nature of conventional milk, especially the kind that’s produced on industrial farms, which use hormones, robotic equipment and techniques like homogenization that alter the structure of fat in milk. And they frequently express distrust of the CDC, the FDA and other government organizations that, they say, have failed the American public before. “When the FDA says something is safe, it often turns out to be something that’s unsafe,” Gumpert says. “So when they say something is unsafe, it could very well be safe.”

It is with shit bacteria on my mind that I watch Samuel lift a funnel off the same ground he trudged over in his muddy work boots. And even though he has sprayed everything down with a hose, I remember with sudden alarm that I shook his hand before he milked Daisy that morning. In the delirium of an unusually early wake-up call on not enough sleep, how well had I washed my hands after using the bathroom? Later, when Samuel and his wife work quickly to fill the milk jugs, I notice her quickly pop an air bubble with her finger before screwing on a blue plastic cap. With five young children in the house, I wonder, had she recently changed a diaper? Am I being too paranoid, or not paranoid enough?

After he’s done with the milking, Samuel carries on with other farm chores before heading off for a day of work at a nearby steel mill. Just after 8 a.m., with Samuel long gone, Schlangen shows up at the farm in his van and parks alongside the ice house—an insulated structure filled with massive blocks of ice that cool the space to thirty-four degrees Fahrenheit all summer long. He lets himself in and loads crate after crate of milk, cream, butter, kefir and other foods into the vehicle.

Between grunts, he explains why he continues to deliver a full load of raw dairy to the Twin Cities twice a week, even though his trial—and the threat of jail time and thousands of dollars in fines—are just ten days away. Our nation’s food system depends on getting people into stores to buy milk and other goods, his supporters believe, and networks like his both subvert that fragile economy and threaten an already struggling milk industry by diverting people’s dollars away from mainstream dairy. “The government would have us believe that we have to ask somebody if we can eat well, from our own cows, if we can eat this kind of quality. We understand that the constitution provides for all this freedom but we have to demand that,” Schlangen says. “Apparently it’s not obvious enough to our so-called leaders. People aren’t supposed to be healthy. It’s not good for business.”

With that, he gets in his van and speeds down the dusty road, on a mission to bring raw milk to the masses.

***

Rae Lynn Sandvig and her husband Greg sat in a quiet room with plush beige carpeting in the back corner of their two-story, suburban home in a gated neighborhood in Bloomington, Minn. It was quarter past seven on a warm June morning in 2010, not long after the Hartmann bust that had started a recent wave of crackdowns. The couple had just spoken on the phone with their oldest son about some job-decisions he was trying to make in Chicago. When they finished praying about his concerns, Rae Lynn went upstairs to get ready for the day. She was still in the shower when Greg looked from the sitting room through the office window and saw an unfamiliar car drive by on their quiet street. Their three other sons were still asleep.

It was a Thursday, the day that Rae Lynn had long hosted a weekly drop-site for raw milk and other foods from the Hartmann Dairy Farm, though she wasn’t expecting a shipment this week because the E. coli investigation had shut down Hartmann’s distribution system two weeks earlier. In the intervening days, Department of Agriculture officials visited and collected samples of food from some of the neighbors who had been picking up supplies at her site for as many as seven years. Three neighbors signed a form revealing Rae Lynn as their source and, she says, one woman was freaked out enough to phone her. “She called and said, ‘Rae Lynn, I’m afraid for you,’” she tells me more than two years later, her voice rising with anger that still lingers over what happened next. “That’s all she said. I understood there were calls being made to customers. When they raided my farmer’s house, they got the customer list. I never got a call.”

Greg walked outside as seven people approached his front door. Two were from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, they would learn later. Two were from the Bloomington Environmental Health Division. And three were undercover Bloomington police officers dressed in dirty jeans, T-shirts and baseball caps. The policemen shoved a search warrant in Greg’s face, Rae Lynn says, but he wasn’t wearing his glasses. He had never seen a search warrant before. He became instinctively protective of his home and family. “You are not coming in our house,” he told them. “I don’t even know who you are.”

As Greg remembers it, one of the men held up a badge on a lanyard. When Greg lifted a finger to point at it in an attempt to see it better, the policeman-in-disguise pushed his hand out of the way. “Listen, we can do it one of two ways,” he told Greg, and gestured to a car across the street. “Either you let us do what we need to do peacefully. Or we can cuff you and put you in that car.” They stepped around him, passed the American flag hanging by the front door, and entered the grey-and-white Colonial. Inside, they fanned out to look around. Behind them, Greg yelled, “My wife is in the shower. Don’t you dare go upstairs!”

Roused by the commotion, Rae Lynn’s youngest son went to tell her there were people outside the house. Now in her bedroom, she had just enough time to throw on a shirt and pair of shorts before the door opened to reveal her husband and two cops standing behind him. The third officer went into the bedrooms of her other two sons, woke them up and told one to put on shorts over his boxers.

All three young men, then ages fourteen, seventeen and nineteen, along with their parents, were corralled into the kitchen, where, Rae Lynn says, they were held for two hours, though Bloomington Environmental Health program coordinator Shannon Rohr, who was one of the seven officials who visited the house that day, didn’t remember it lasting that long. Looking through an entire house and clearing people out of rooms is standard procedure with a search warrant, Rohr says, a precaution necessary to prevent unwanted surprises.

Neither the Bloomington Police Department nor the Environmental Health Division filed a report that day. And the MDA, whose officials weren’t let into the home until after the search was over, didn’t record their time of arrival. But Rae Lynn wrote everything down after it happened. During their time in the kitchen, she says, the officers looked in the refrigerator, where they found one glass bottle labeled “Real Milk.” The weekend before, with Hartmann’s network disabled, Rae Lynn had driven nearly two hours to retrieve her weekly dairy supplies from the farm.

The officials offered her money for the milk. MDA spokesman Michael Schommer says the Agriculture Department wanted to test the milk for bacteria and that their offer of payment was standard procedure to compensate the family for what they’d be taking. But Rae Lynn felt like it was a trap. She says they told her they would pay whatever she wanted. “Are you kidding me?” she answered, her round brown eyes shining with the threat of tears at the memory. “I don’t sell. This is mine.”

As the ordeal dragged on, she stood in the kitchen, drifting from anger to fear to disbelief. She cried. She fumed. She tried to educate the officers about her food choices and her desire to avoid milk that is full of “dead cells.”

After looking through the refrigerator and freezer in the Sandvigs’ garage, which the family uses to store the extra food they buy in bulk for a family full of teenage boys, the officials finally left with half a gallon of milk and a pound of hamburger.

Since the raid, Rae Lynn says, she has felt numb. Life is different. The Sandvigs now have blinds on their windows. They keep the door locked. Her adrenaline surges every time she sees a Bloomington city police car. “How could my government do this to me?” she asks. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”

Contrary to the image that a stereotypical raw-milk devotee might evoke, there is not a whiff of patchouli at the Sandvig house. Rae Lynn and Greg are not hippies, anarchists, or even democrats. She describes herself as politically “very conservative.” Before the recent election, her lawn sported a sign supporting an amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman. Her spotless sitting room is full of religious-themed books.

The Sandvigs’s raw-milk journey began about twelve years ago, when Rae Lynn saw unmarked jars at a farmer’s stand, asked around and eventually stepped up to host a drop-site as demand grew among her neighbors. Raw milk has transformed her husband’s digestive system, she says. All of her boys are strong, athletic and thin. None have broken any bones. They don’t get sick.

Each Thursday before the raid, Hartmann’s truck would drive into the Sandvigs’ garage and stay there for about two hours until all 35 or so families that used the node had come to pick up their orders of raw milk and other farm foods. Rae Lynn usually stayed out there the entire time, sweating on hot summer days and huddling on frigid winter mornings. Sometimes she made pancakes for everyone. She and the neighbors who relied on her site celebrated birthdays together. They knew their farmer and where their food was coming from. They were a community—a community that, she says, has been destroyed. Fed up with the government’s interference, Rae Lynn says she and her allies simply “want to be able to eat what we want to eat. We, as people, can make our own decisions. We are capable of doing research.”

Perhaps more than any other issue, the Food Freedom movement and its corresponding push for access to raw milk, cross political boundaries and tie people together who couldn’t be more different. Alongside conservative moms like Sandvig, supporters include liberal lefties interested in supporting local farmers, eating whole foods and pursuing holistic medicine. Food has a way of bringing people together.

“This cuts across all demographics and all political ideologies,” says Minnesota State Senator Sean Nienow. At LGBT day at the state Capitol two years ago, Nienow talked with one of his constituents who told him that she went to Canada to marry her female partner in defiance of his support of the amendment that would define marriage as between one man and one woman. “As she was leaving, she said, ‘But thanks for the raw milk bill!’ Everyone from Christian conservative evangelicals to tree-huggers to the woman who went to Canada to get married all stand together for raw milk.”

***

When Schlangen’s trial finally begins in mid-September of 2012, dozens of supporters fill the courtroom on the sixteenth floor of the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis. Among the four charges against him, Schlangen is accused of selling unlabeled food and selling unpasteurized milk off the farm where it was produced.

The crowd includes farmers, their customers and other raw-milk drinkers who have traveled from as far away as New Hampshire to see what is going to happen to Schlangen and to speculate on how the trial might affect their own access to raw dairy. Amish Samuel makes an appearance. So does Vernon Hershberger, an Amish raw-milk farmer in Wisconsin who will face his own jury trial in January for a June 2010 raid by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture.

For three days in a row, mothers come to the courthouse bearing American flags and small children. The kids sit on the floor playing with iPhones, munching on apple slices and snoozing in laps while their moms listen to hours of testimony about Schlangen’s distribution system, including more than 140 pictures of the van, food and the receipt book Schlangen uses for record-keeping. On the morning of day two, Judge Robert Small compliments the children for staying so quiet and expresses disbelief at how good they have been at sitting still. “It’s the raw milk!” calls someone from the back of the room. Small says, “I didn’t hear that.”

At half past three on the second afternoon, Schlangen finally takes the stand, eager to talk. Wearing a short-sleeve, collared turquoise shirt tucked into his blue jeans, he offers long-winded, often-philosophical responses to his lawyer’s questions. When asked to describe the food club, his answer veers into the undernourishment of our society and the attempts of his small community to acquire healthy sources of “natural” food. “This has always been about trying to bring local farm sources into the system to allow a larger community to access that food,” he explains to the six-person jury.

Over the next hour and for three hours the next morning, Schlangen’s face and voice remain essentially expressionless and unwavering as he explains that he is not operating a business but supporting a way of life for his group’s 140 member families. The food club leases Samuel’s cows so that, as they see it, Schlangen is essentially bringing members the milk they already own. He works long hours and makes no profit. He just wants to connect people with what he sees as medicinal nourishment. “The reality is that the majority of the public doesn’t know what this food is. That’s why they don’t want it. They don’t know they want it.”

In closing arguments, defense lawyer Nathan Hansen focuses on the ambiguity of Minnesota’s raw-milk statute and alternative interpretations of it. “The Department of Agriculture folks testified that if your spouse went to the farm and picked up milk and brought it home, that would not be permissible under the law,” he tells the jury. “Every single member of the household has to go to the farm with money or whatever they’re going to trade for it and get their own milk. It’s absurd. That interpretation of the statute doesn’t make any common sense. If you want your spouse to pick up milk and bring the milk home, that’s just normal stuff.”

“This food club provides its own bottling and they send one person with refrigeration in his truck, advanced refrigeration with a thermostat, to pick up milk and bring it to drop sites where they can get it,” he adds. “It would be incredibly expensive and time-consuming to abide by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s interpretation and views they read into this law.” He also argues that the law is discriminatory against people who can’t get themselves to the farm because they are disabled or don’t have enough money to pay for gas.

State prosecutor Michelle Doffing Baynes’ final remarks are more succinct. “A person in the United States can go into any grocery store in the United States and purchase an apple and have no concerns. A person can go into a store in a foreign country and they may have concerns. Why? Food safety laws.”

The jury deliberates for more than four hours the next day before releasing their verdict: not guilty on all counts. In their unanimous view, Schlangen did not illegally sell raw milk, operate a business without a license or mislabel the food he distributed. As an acquittal in a district court case, the trial sets no legal precedents for other raw-milk delivery systems. And the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s position has not changed. Still, gasps and cries emerge from the twenty or so supporters who hung on until the very end, says Susie Zahratka, a Schlangen supporter who has brought her kids to the trial every day. The children in attendance hug and kiss each other. And when Schlangen walks into the public area of the courtroom, he beams as the group embraces him. “He actually smiled,” Zahrata says. “He doesn’t smile.”

***

A couple of weeks before Schlangen’s trial, I contacted a raw-milk farmer named John who I had met more than a year earlier at a potluck for people interested in sustainable agriculture, the Slow Food movement and related issues. John won’t talk to me now, and like Samuel’s, I’ve changed his name to protect him. Given the “political climate surrounding raw milk,” he writes in an e-mail, “we would prefer to not draw any attention to ourselves.”

Still, I clearly remember the day I met him. After a period of mingling, browsing and sampling food at tables of informational displays that included kombucha, raw ice cream, local honey and other wares, I listened as Will Winter, the moderator of an online group known as Traditional Foods MN, spent fifteen minutes talking through science-based slides that celebrated the nutritional virtues of raw milk. Winter worked for years as a holistic veterinarian, and at the time, was the Minneapolis-St. Paul chapter leader for the Weston A. Price Foundation. The talk he gave that afternoon was a short version of a two-hour lecture he has given around the country.

When the slides ended and the lights came back on, I met John and his wife, who cradled their newborn son in a sling. Around us, people munched on a communal feast of brats, gingered carrot cashew salad, muffins, deviled eggs and other homemade dishes. We talked about their farm, which lies about an hour southeast of the Cities, their twenty cows and the one hundred families they supply with raw milk. Eventually, they asked if I wanted to try some.

I zipped up my jacket and followed John down the street to his white SUV. I braced myself against the blustery April day and watched while he opened up the trunk, lifted the lid on a large cooler, and pulled out an ice-cold, half-gallon plastic jug. I looked both ways before grabbing it, and saw no one. John accepted my thanks but refused my money. Then, he walked briskly back to the gathering.

I felt like I’d scored a bag of pot at a party as I watched him walk away before driving home to my husband and toddler son. Back in my own kitchen, I put the unmarked jug on the top shelf of the refrigerator next to a gallon of organic milk bought from a nearby grocery store. Two containers of creamy white liquid, they represented a sharp divide between two world-views, two ways of life, two forms of faith in what it means to be healthy, virtuous and free – two philosophies that seem to be drifting ever-further apart.

I looked at them there, side by side. Then, I shut the door.

This article is reprinted in partnership with thirty two, Minnesota's forward-looking culture and ideas magazine with a literary edge.

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Comments (1)

Ms Sohn-- you're doing quite

Ms Sohn-- you're doing quite a disservice when you compare the count of illnesses linked to raw-milk, with the total CDC estimate of foodborne illness. One is an actual case-count, one is an estimate derived from both reported cases, and the knowledge (from studies of individual outbreaks) that with foodborne illness, for every one detected case there are many more that never are brought to medical attention, correctly diagnosed, and reported.

The estimate takes into account that most people with vomiting or diarrhea won't go to the doctor. For those that do, most won't be asked to submit a sample for culture (or will be affected by an organism that requires fairly advanced tests to confirm, that aren't available at any urgent care or even a large medical center). And in most cases, nobody is going to be taking the detailed exposure history to try sort out where the illness was acquired-- was it from changing diapers at day care, a random illness, or from the salad last night? Only when a good public health department starts to see signs of an outbreak, do they come and take the detailed food questionnaires, sample unconsumed food, and start tracing back the source.

The vast majority of foodborne illness is never detected, and thus the CDC makes it clear (although you did not) that that 48 million number is an estimate. That's even the heading of the page you got the number from: "Estimates of Foodborne Illness in the United States". The EID article you cite reports actual cases linked to raw milk-- making the 2 number not comparable.

http://www.cdc.gov/foodborneburden/