The first time you see raw milk, you are struck by its creaminess: The milk is so laden with fat that the plastic jug swells. It looks straight out of another century—a fantasy world in which all dairy was unprocessed and nobody worried about E. coli superbugs. Unpasteurized, or raw, milk is a sort of holy grail for ardent locavores and dairy-industry skeptics, who label it “real milk” (implying that the vast majority of milk we drink is, in fact, fake). But it’s also gaining in popularity among those who don’t qualify as “a combination of tea baggers and granolas,” as food-safety lawyer Bill Marler puts it. The ranks of the raw-curious are growing, as are the number of farms with permits to sell it to them: 29 in New York (up from nineteen in 2007), and 100 in Pennsylvania (up from 35 in 2005).
Though there is little scientific evidence that raw milk is more nutritious, proponents credit it with treating a whole range of health problems, from eczema to irritable-bowel syndrome. Their theory is that pasteurization not only destroys dangerous pathogens like E. coli, salmonella, and campylobacter; it also zaps some good things: for instance, the enzyme lactobacillus, which helps with digestion.
Then there’s the drinking experience. Raw milk typically comes from small farms where the cows are grass-fed. The taste changes depending on the season (the most deliciously grassy stuff supposedly arrives in the spring), as does the look: ranging from gold to beige to yellow-green. Fans drink it at room temperature, sipping slowly as if they were savoring a fine Bordeaux. “It’s like the difference between Cheez Whiz and Brillat-Savarin,” says one Brooklyn mother who coordinates—illegally— a weekly group delivery of raw milk.
Food-safety officials could not be less enthusiastic. Last month, the FDA issued a warning about an outbreak of campylobacter tied to an unregulated raw-milk dairy in Indiana (at least twelve people were sickened). Marler has represented clients who’ve gotten severely ill from raw milk, resulting in kidney failure, heart attacks, and paralysis. In a 2009 study, raw milk was implicated in 75 percent of all dairy-related illness outbreaks between 2000 and 2007. Raw-milk defenders dispute these numbers and dismiss the alarms: “The FDA and the USDA are ready to blame anything on raw milk,” says Sally Fallon Morell, the president of the Washington, D.C.–based Weston A. Price Foundation, a raw-milk advocacy group.
Conspiracy theories aside, many people are willing to trade health risks for supposed health benefits and fuller taste. So how can you score some? It depends on where you live: In Connecticut, you can buy it in retail stores; New Jersey bans it outright; and in New York, raw milk can be purchased only on the premises of certified farms that are subject to rigorous monthly inspections. (See the next page for several reputable farms; there’s a complete list at realmilk.com.) Here in the city, drinkers usually participate in delivery clubs, which have a middleman purchase a large quantity of milk at the farm and truck it in. This is not legal, so the clubs are usually underground. But with minimal Googling, I found one that would deliver to me at home in Brooklyn, no questions asked.
My order arrived several days later in the back of a station wagon. It was driven to my curb by a neatly dressed man—sweater, pleated chinos—who leaned into the backseat and handed me two wet, extremely cold, plastic half-gallons and a jar of maple syrup. I handed him $23, and he left. What nutrients or pathogens lurked inside? It was impossible to say. But for a black-market bottle, it looked deceptively innocent.