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My rendezvous with the raw milk black market: quick, easy, and unchecked by the FDA

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WASHINGTON — It's Friday, May 10, and I'm on my way to what feels like the world's weirdest drug deal.

I received a text the day before from a man named Karl. My order would be arriving from Maryland between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. at the Northwest D.C. drop site. It'll be safely wrapped in ice packs, he assured me.

I pull up to a house worth north of $1.5 million with a Tesla parked outside and two classic cars in the driveway. It looks like the lights are on. Do they know their driveway is being used to commit a federal crime?

"I'm 1 min away," Karl texts me. Then, a black Dodge minivan pulls up. Karl pulls out half a dozen Igloo coolers that are so large they need to be pulled by a trailer. They're all filled with individual packages of raw milk. This guy moves a lot of weight.

He asks if I've ever drunk raw milk. No, I say. Is there anything I should know? No, he replies, he's been drinking it his whole life, and feeds it to his kids. Though I'm technically buying "pet milk," I quickly realize we are not pretending that this is being fed to our cats and dogs. After what feels like an eternity, he finds my package — one half-gallon jug.

The interstate trade in raw milk is illegal, because of the risk of serious illness from drinking unpasteurized milk. But in Washington and many other places across the country, raw milk is being transported across state lines and openly sold to enthusiastic customers — and the Food and Drug Administration is doing nothing to stop it. That lapse in enforcement has taken on new significance as the H5N1 bird flu virus has spread to at least 46 dairy cow herds in nine states. Government testing has found genetic traces of the virus in 1 in 5 samples of store-bought milk, suggesting the possible presence of live virus in the raw product.

I found the company I purchased from on getrawmilk.com. While it's called "pet milk" online, raw milk boosters admit that's just a formality to keep the FDA at bay.

"It's very good for cats and dogs, but you have to admit it's a loophole," said Sally Fallon Morell, the founding president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, which advocates for raw milk. "You're allowed to eat pet food."

The market for out-of-state pet milk exists largely because the FDA has allowed it to, one former agency official acknowledged to STAT. The agency has issued only six warnings to interstate shippers of raw milk in the last two decades, according to its website, though the practice was banned in 1987.

"By and large, I would say the agency has been pretty much missing in action," said Stephen Ostroff, a former deputy commissioner for human foods at the FDA. "The more you know it's there and don't take any actions, the more of it occurs."

Ostroff said agency officials, roughly a decade ago, debated internally how to deal with raw milk and considered writing an informal policy outlining when the FDA would go after companies shipping raw milk, but "there was a diversity of opinions within the agency about how aggressive or not aggressive we should be in that space … especially given how passionate people are."

The Price Foundation maintains on its website that the FDA "has never issued a regulation prohibiting the sale of raw pet milk across state lines."

Contacted after the Washington dropoff, Karl told STAT, "We are not trying to do anything illegal." He added that his milk is "pet milk," which is "not intended for human consumption."

The FDA said in a statement that "if the FDA becomes aware that raw milk labeled for pets is actually intended for the human food supply, it may take action as appropriate on a case-by-case basis."

My half-gallon of raw milk looked delicious. It was ice cold and the color of the most luscious French vanilla ice cream. But I did not indulge. My love of farm-fresh frozen confections does not outweigh my distaste for food poisoning — or bird flu.

Raw milk carries an outsized risk of containing bacteria ranging from Salmonella and E. coli to Listeria and Campylobacter. More than 2,600 people were sickened and 228 hospitalized from drinking raw milk between 1998 and 2018, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While the milk on store shelves has been heated to kill bacteria in a process known as pasteurization, raw milk enthusiasts eschew the safeguard because, they say, it turns milk from an almost magically nutritious food to something, they argue, that is bad for people.

"When they feed ultra-pasteurized milk to rats, their memory skills, their learning skills go down — so the rats get stupid," Morell said. (She did not respond to STAT's follow-up request to provide a scientific study backing up her claim.)

Raw milk has become especially concerning to public health officials and food scientists with the news of H5N1 spreading to cows. While no individuals have reported getting H5N1 from consuming raw milk — the lone reported human case during the current outbreak was a dairy farm worker who had direct exposure to cows and developed conjunctivitis, possibly from touching his eye with infected milk — scientists believe that the virus could be transmitted via an infected cow's milk. One expert previously told STAT that drinking milk infected with H5N1 might deliver a large enough dose of the virus to kill the consumer.

Morell said in an interview with STAT that H5N1 is "not real." "They have never proven that this virus exists," she claimed. "This whole science of virology is very corrupt — it's not really a science." (According to World Health Organization data, H5N1 has caused 463 deaths of people since 2003.) 

The FDA, for its part, has reiterated its advice to consumers not to drink raw milk. Raw milk enthusiasts, however, seem completely undeterred.

"Business is booming," said Morell. "People who drink raw milk don't believe this stuff. They don't believe the government."

The reporter's raw milk, shown in his kitchen in Washington, D.C., came from Maryland, though interstate sales of unpasteurized milk are illegal. Nicholas Florko/STAT

Karl appears to be in his early 40s, wearing sneakers, khakis, and a flannel overcoat. He does not look like someone who would knowingly break the law. He's a family farmer. His website includes a photo of his three kids smiling by a lake.

The "pet milk" he's selling is legal in Maryland. In fact, only three states and Washington, D.C., say it is illegal to sell raw milk, according to the Price Foundation.

Therein lies the FDA's biggest challenge regarding raw milk: Enforcing the interstate shipping ban would mean FDA agents taking legal action against small farms across the country.

The FDA often struggles with policing small vendors selling illegal goods. That's why it's so easy to buy illicit products — from CBD gummies to illegal vapes — in the FDA's own backyard. But the raw milk debate is even more tumultuous for the FDA, as it would require throwing the book at farmers, including those in the Amish community, who have been particularly active on the raw milk debate.

Ostroff acknowledged that those public relations worries factored into the agency's decision to largely not enforce its interstate shipping ban.

"It was a combination of, is this where the agency wants to put its resources knowing that it's probably not going to make a major difference … and then it's the optics of going after this community, and how passionate consumers are about this product," Ostroff said.

Even on the few occasions when the FDA has gone after dairies shipping raw milk, it's not always been easy to keep them from selling the product.

The agency has been locked in a 16-year legal battle with one California farmer, Mark McAfee, who has been described as operating the largest raw dairy in the country. While the feds successfully convinced a judge to enjoin McAfee from selling his products in 2010, the FDA and Department of Justice asked a federal judge to reopen the case against McAfee late last month, after he allegedly ignored the order and his raw cheese and milk products were tied to two foodborne-illness outbreaks.

"This is the second time in less than a year that the United States has had to seek the Court's intervention to compel Raw Farm's compliance with its court-ordered obligations," the government's lawyers wrote in a recent legal filing.

The government's brief makes no mention of H5N1.

McAfee's business could not be more obvious. His company is called Raw Farm, and his website openly boasts of shipping milk around the country.

Other smaller operations aren't exactly clandestine, either.

As I leave with my "pet milk," Karl tells me that if he gets to the drop site before me next time, he leaves the milk in the driveway. Customers are free to come pick up their raw milk from the coolers. He just asks them to leave the ice packs for next week.

It dawns on me: Every Friday, there are gallons of illegal raw milk just sitting in a driveway in Northwest D.C.

FDA headquarters is only six-and-a-half miles away.

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