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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And now we're going to hear about raw milk, the milk that comes straight from the cow. It's illegal to sell in many states, but some people find a way to buy it because they think raw milk is better for them.

NPR's April Fulton has the story.

APRIL FULTON: It's three o'clock in the afternoon on a sweltering summer day in Bowie, Maryland, and the Reitzig kids are ready for their snack.

Ms. LIZ REITZIG: Good job, Buddy. Good job.

FULTON: That's stay-at-home mom Liz Reitzig. She helps her youngest son, Duncan, who's almost two, pour the milk into his bowl of freshly sliced peaches.

Ms. REITZIG: Mmm.

FULTON: But Duncan's milk is practically contraband because it's illegal to sell raw milk in Maryland. Raw milk isn't pasteurized, and it's hard to get. The stuff you buy at the store is usually pasteurized, which means it's super heated to kill harmful germs. But there are some people willing to take that risk with raw milk, and they're very vocal.

Mom Liz Reitzig is one of them.

Ms. REITZIG: I just think it's so silly. I can go out and get a six pack of beer anywhere and a carton of cigarettes.

AUBREY: She says the family started drinking raw milk about six years ago, after her second child was born. Reitzig rolls her eyes thinking about how she has to drive two hours or more every week to Pennsylvania to buy it.

Ms. REITZIG: Legally, I can feed my children fast food three meals a day. But then to get this incredible, nutrient-dense, fresh local food, the farmer in my state is criminalized for selling that to me.

AUBREY: But there's a good reason for that, according to health officials.

Dr. DAVID ACHESON (Former Head of Food Safety Division, Food and Drug Administration): Raw milk is associated with significant human illness and potentially with microbes that are deadly.

FULTON: David Acheson used to head the food safety division at the Food and Drug Administration. He says the Reitzigs are taking a big risk, especially if bacteria hiding in the cow's fecal matter gets in the raw milk. That bacteria would almost certainly be killed if the milk was pasteurized - bacteria like the one made infamous for recently hiding in spinach and ground beef and cookie dough: E. coli O157:H7.

Dr. ACHESON: That's the one that I worry about, because we know from clinical experience that that can very readily land you in hospital with kidney failure and is potentially deadly.

FULTON: But mom Liz Reitzig says if you're going to eat, you're going to take some risks. Any food can spoil or become contaminated. Reitzig and others who buy raw milk say drinking it is part of their philosophy. Eating more local and natural foods is healthier. They say it clears up allergies and helps with milk intolerance.

But Acheson doesn't buy it.

Dr. ACHESON: You know, a lot of that is anecdotal. I have never been convinced by any science that that's the case.

AUBREY: But he does admit that pasteurization kills some nutrients in milk.

Dr. ACHESON: You are going to impact vitamins. You are going to do other things to it. But in the grand scheme of things, of a complete, healthy diet, it is, frankly, in my opinion, irrelevant.

FULTON: The food safety expert says not getting sick is what's important. He would never drink raw milk. But he thinks banning it only encourages Liz Reitzig and others to skirt the law, and that could put them at greater risk. If you're one of the one to 3 percent of the population that drinks raw milk, Acheson says make sure that the cows are clean, your hands are clean, and the bottle are sterilized and stored properly.

April Fulton, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

KELLY: And there's more on pasteurizing milk and beer at our website: npr.org.

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