Episode 970: Raw Milk Deal : Planet Money A farmer in California built an empire dealing raw milk. And then the Feds showed up. Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.
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Episode 970: Raw Milk Deal

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Episode 970: Raw Milk Deal

Episode 970: Raw Milk Deal

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

MARY CHILDS, HOST:

In 2000, Mark McAfee was only about a year into dairy farming when he started getting these calls. People kept calling, being like, do you have any milk? And he's like, I mean, yeah, of course I do. I'm a dairy farmer.

MARK MCAFEE: No, no, no, no, no. We don't want your milk to go off to be pasteurized. We want your milk direct from you in raw form, not processed in any way.

CHILDS: Raw milk, as in not pasteurized. Mark's like, sure, I guess I don't have to send it off for pasteurization. Why not?

KAREN DUFFIN, HOST:

And that's how Mark found himself driving down the 5 from Fresno to Los Angeles, the back of his white SUV filled with not OJ, but raw milk.

MCAFEE: Drove down to LA - 3 1/2-hour drive. And we took phone calls from people who wanted to reserve 5 gallons for themselves. And we only had, like - I don't know what it was - 125 or so half gallons. It wasn't like we had a lot. But we drove down to Los Angeles. And after taking all these orders on the phone, as we're driving down, people knew we were coming.

DUFFIN: He's driving through this residential neighborhood called Venice, and he pulls into this back alley behind a row of houses and he sees his customers.

CHILDS: And he'd been expecting, like, some bodybuilders maybe and, like, some hippie moms. But waiting for him, there's this huge mob.

MCAFEE: People just literally surround our vehicle - hundred people, maybe more - saying, thank you. Thank you for coming. Gosh, like, this is fantastic. People would grab the milk without even paying for it and throw $20 bills at us and start guzzling the milk, going, oh, my God. This is so delicious.

CHILDS: Like, literally throwing a $20 bill at him, opening the bottle of milk and chugging it right there in the back alley. Within 20 minutes, all 60-some gallons are gone.

MCAFEE: And my wife and I are kind of, like, busy going, what is going on here? And so we basically looked at each other and go, maybe we should get the heck out of here.

CHILDS: They back out of the alley and start to drive back to Fresno a little dazed, not entirely sure what just happened, but also a little jazzed. Maybe this was an opportunity.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACKY JOSE GIORDANO'S "HAPPY JACK")

DUFFIN: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Karen Duffin.

CHILDS: And I'm Mary Childs. Today on the show, how a humble farmer found himself in the middle of one of the most contentious food fights of our time.

DUFFIN: It is a fight that gets to the heart of how the government regulates what we eat. There will be sting operations. There will be free markets. There will even be Martin Sheen.

CHILDS: Cameo - President Bartlet.

So Mark and his wife get back to Fresno, where things made sense - to their farm and their beloved cows.

MCAFEE: They come and hang out and lick you and snuggle up to you. And people show up. They like to visit.

CHILDS: They also apparently like to follow the rules.

MCAFEE: My favorite thing is we have electric fences out in our pastures. And if one cow gets out, all the rest of the cows start to moo like crazy 'cause they think there's an injustice that's happened...

CHILDS: Oh, my God.

MCAFEE: ...Because they aren't out either, and they are upset that somebody broke the rules.

CHILDS: And so far in his dairy tenure, Mark had been just like his beloved cows. He'd stayed on the side of the fence where everybody else was.

DUFFIN: Like most people, Mark was on Team Pasteurized. Milk the cows, send the milk to a processor, processor heats it to 145 degrees Fahrenheit, bottles it and sells it. This is pasteurization. And this is what makes the milk safe to drink.

CHILDS: On the other side of the fence, for a long time, there was only one commercial producer of raw unpasteurized milk, but that company had just sold to a giant food company and shut down its raw milk business, leaving Mark to deal with these now-desperate customers in a back alley.

MCAFEE: The survivors really wanted their raw milk, so they were just waiting for this new supplier to show up when they hadn't had raw milk for six months.

DUFFIN: Which, if you think about it, why should it be so hard to get raw milk? Like, that's how milk comes out of cows. And that's how people drank it for centuries. But the tide turned for raw milk during the Industrial Revolution. It became this carrier of diseases, linked to typhoid outbreaks, strep throat, high infant mortality. In 1908, the surgeon general attributed most childhood deaths to tainted milk.

CHILDS: In part because raw milk often just naturally contains harmful germs - germs like E. coli or listeria, salmonella. But the Industrial Revolution made all that worse. The milk got spoiled, in part because more people were living in cities instead of on farms, so the milk had to travel further to get to them.

DUFFIN: Luckily, there is a solution to this - pasteurization. Louis Pasteur in France had discovered that if you heat milk, the dangerous pathogens get killed. So in the 1920s and beyond, pasteurization basically became mandatory. And the U.S. milk industry went on a decades-long campaign to promote milk and let people know it was now safe.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: The trip along the pipeline continues to the pasteurization process, in which the milk is passed in a continuous flow through a series of stainless steel plates. This rapid heating assures absolute purity without changing or affecting the flavor of the milk.

DUFFIN: And - what do you know? - milk that is less likely to kill you and your children suddenly sounded much more appetizing. Milk quickly became the staple that we now all recognize in nearly every American kitchen.

CHILDS: So when Mark had the chance to start his own dairy farm, he, of course, got on the pasteurization train.

MCAFEE: When my grandparents passed away, my wife and I decided to raise our kids out on the farm. And we initially sold our milk to be pasteurized, and we were doing quite well.

DUFFIN: But as Mark was slowly building his dairy farm on milk that is pasteurized, unbeknownst to him, quietly simmering in the background was a raw milk revival led by the kinds of people who are, you know, suspicious of big ag, the kind of people who frequent local farmers markets, don't eat GMOs, people who buy organic.

CHILDS: The raw milkers argue the regulations are outdated - that, yes, the dangers were a big problem in the 1800s, but farmers are better trained now and have better testing technologies. Raw milk advocates say, look; there is no such thing as a zero-risk food. Look at romaine lettuce if you want an example. And they point to scientific studies that they say tentatively shows some benefits of drinking raw milk, like it might help with allergies and asthma.

DUFFIN: But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, yeah, no.

MEGIN NICHOLS: We know that it's just not worth the risk.

DUFFIN: This is Megin Nichols, the CDC's lead on raw milk. And she says those studies that appear to show asthma and allergy benefits - that might just be because a lot of people included in the studies also lived on farms. So maybe they're healthier because, for example, there's less pollution on a farm.

CHILDS: And she says disease outbreaks related to raw milk have actually risen.

NICHOLS: We see a disproportionate number of illnesses and outbreaks linked to the unpasteurized milk, given that only a really, really small percentage of our U.S. population actually consume the raw milk. So raw milk really accounts for a much higher burden of illness, disease and outbreak.

CHILDS: The CDC calls raw milk, quote, "one of the riskiest of all foods."

DUFFIN: Because they're there to advocate for public health. But in America, private citizens very often have the right to make risky decisions in the privacy of their own kitchens. Raw milk sits sort of right on this line between government regulation and personal choice. And many people in the United States make that choice. An estimated 6 million people drink raw milk in America, and they are willing to pay a lot for it.

CHILDS: A lot. Like, Mark discovered that while he'd been able to get about a buck fifty, buck eighty for his pasteurized milk, for raw milk, he can get $12.50.

MCAFEE: So a whole different world, and we're not even the most expensive raw milk in America. There's some raw milk selling at $40 a gallon and they can't keep it in stock.

CHILDS: So that is not hard math. Mark and his wife are like, yeah. Yeah, I guess we are selling raw milk now.

MCAFEE: And I immediately started to work with the state of California to build my creamery, get my creamery up and going. We had the preliminary aspects of our creamery up in 90 days.

CHILDS: Within 90 days of Venice back alley?

MCAFEE: Yeah.

CHILDS: Wow.

MCAFEE: Yeah.

DUFFIN: They built that creamery. They got permits from the California state regulators and the health department.

MCAFEE: I bought a big reefer van. You know the big trucks that go down the road?

CHILDS: Is that a reference to drugs?

MCAFEE: No, no.

(LAUGHTER)

MCAFEE: Yeah, it's a big ice cream truck, refrigerated trailer.

CHILDS: Reefer - of course.

MCAFEE: And we parked it right outside where we were milking the cows.

DUFFIN: They did a whole bunch of testing, and then they started selling. And people were buying.

MCAFEE: People were paying through the nose, but they were loving it, and we were selling it, and it was profitable. And there you go.

CHILDS: He even got calls from famous raw milk enthusiasts. Martin Sheen from "The West Wing" - he and his wife not only became customers; they even helped expand Mark's business.

MCAFEE: Gave us a $35,000 check and said, make butter happen, because we didn't have butter. And so we went out and bought a cream separator and a butter churner and started making butter. And...

CHILDS: For the Sheens, just to be...

MCAFEE: Yeah.

CHILDS: OK.

MCAFEE: Yeah.

CHILDS: OK.

MCAFEE: Compliments to the Sheens on that. Thank you very much.

CHILDS: So now he's selling raw milk and raw butter. And then he starts getting calls from people in other states, which is where things get complicated.

DUFFIN: Raw milk is heavily regulated state by state. It's legal in some states, not legal in others. And more importantly, it is never legal to sell raw milk between states.

MCAFEE: CFR 1240.61 bans the interstate commerce of raw milk for human consumption. So...

CHILDS: That just rolled off your tongue.

MCAFEE: Yes. Yup.

DUFFIN: Congress has the power to regulate interstate commerce - business that crosses state lines. And when food or drink crosses state lines, that's when the Food and Drug Administration gets involved - the FDA.

CHILDS: By the way, the FDA declined to talk to us on tape for this. They just pointed us to their very informative website. Their job is to make sure that businesses don't sell things that make people sick. And since raw milk has a history of making people sick, the FDA says, sorry, but no. You can drink your dirty raw milk in the privacy of your own home.

So when Mark gets these calls from people out of state stranded in raw milk deserts, he wants to help them. And he finds a loophole. He can't ship raw milk for people to drink, but what about animals? If people want to buy raw milk to feed their pets, well, that's none of his business.

MCAFEE: Nowhere in the United States is it illegal for you to go down to the store and buy pet food and eat it. You can do that. So there's nothing there that's particularly dangerous.

CHILDS: The FDA doesn't care as much about pet food. So Mark just kind of alters the labels that he puts on the raw milk that he ships to other states.

MCAFEE: We slapped a little pet food sticker on the side of our product to be sold in stores here in California, called it good.

CHILDS: Just a little sticker - Mark thinks it was yellow - that said, pet food consumption only.

MCAFEE: That was the blink, blink. Yeah, that was the, go for it, but I'm not telling you one way or the other.

CHILDS: I'm not telling you whether this is for your dog or not, just simply that I intend it for your dog - blink, blink.

DUFFIN: So this becomes Mark's system - human labels for the milk he sells in state, pet stickers for the milk he sells out of state. Mark says he thought this was - blink, blink - fine, but it is technically a violation of federal law. It is also a whole new market for Mark.

MCAFEE: We sold to people all over the United States, including Hawaii and Guam.

DUFFIN: And he's been doing this out-of-state sales thing for several years when his secretary gets a phone call.

MCAFEE: I would like to have some of your raw dairy products sent to me in Idaho. Can you do that?

DUFFIN: It's the usual phone call.

MCAFEE: We said, sure, as a pet food product only. He goes, oh, well, I'm going to feed it to my kids. And our secretary up front that did that said, well, we do it all the time here.

DUFFIN: So they ship the raw milk for pet food off to Idaho. And then a little while later, Mark gets a letter.

MCAFEE: And then we were notified by the FDA to immediately cease and desist and that we're going to be drawn before a grand jury.

DUFFIN: Drawn before a grand jury because of his raw milk for pets. That caller from Idaho was a government official posing as a raw milk enthusiast. The FDA was now threatening him with prison time, accusing him of putting kids in danger by selling raw milk.

CHILDS: Mark had found himself at the center of an escalating raw milk crackdown. Shipping raw milk across state lines had been explicitly illegal since the '80s, but the crackdown really started in the 2000s after a bunch of E. coli and salmonella outbreaks that were associated with raw milk. The FDA started raiding raw milk producers like drug busts, except the white stuff was milk. They were ambushing dairies, confiscating thousands of dollars of product, busting in armed to the gills wearing hazmat suits, taking the milk, taking computers, records, taping refrigerators shut, which is my personal favorite part.

DUFFIN: And now the FDA had turned their attention to Mark. They had been watching him for years by then because he had become the biggest raw milk producer in the country. They had recordings. That phone call from Idaho - recorded. They'd sent investigators out to his farm. They'd even tried to convince some of his employees to wear a wire. So by the time he got that letter, the FDA had built up a pretty big case.

MCAFEE: It was a bad day. Your heart comes up in your throat. You go, oh, my gosh. I did not want to pick a fight with Superman.

DUFFIN: But actually, he kind of did want to.

MCAFEE: The first thing I did when I was contacted was I absolutely admit that I sent this product across state lines, and I think your laws suck. They're wrong. And why should it be that some arbitrary line in, you know, the dirt keeps someone from having a product that they really revere and want that their relatives are consuming in California legally? Why wouldn't it be OK for me to ship it across state lines?

CHILDS: Mark has a huge dairy farm to run. So after a while, he decides it wasn't worth his time to fight the FDA in court.

MCAFEE: Bottom line is we settle it. We negotiated all the terms of it, and I felt comfortable with it. I signed it, and we went on with life.

CHILDS: How did you celebrate?

MCAFEE: We said, thank God this is behind us, and we made some raw milk ice cream, which is delicious, by the way.

CHILDS: Mark is continuing to fight kind of the bigger fight. He's become something of a raw milk evangelist. He's, like, the guy now - like, the raw milk guy. For instance, recently, he and some other raw milkers sued the FDA in support of raw butter rights. He is encouraging the courts and regulators to rethink raw milk safety.

DUFFIN: It is highly unlikely that they will, but Mark is going to try. And in the meantime, you can still get raw milk if you are willing to take the risk.

CHILDS: Which we are, right, Karen?

DUFFIN: Yes, we are.

CHILDS: Very brave.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADRIAN QUESADA AND SKINNY WILLIAMS' "SON OF NIGERIA")

CHILDS: After the break, we go find some raw milk of our own.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADRIAN QUESADA AND SKINNY WILLIAMS' "SON OF NIGERIA")

DUFFIN: All right. Mary, you have been reporting this for weeks and weeks now. You've even tried raw milk yourself.

CHILDS: That's correct. I've ingested maybe four cups of coffee with it in it.

DUFFIN: All right. OK.

CHILDS: And, yeah, I lived. I feel perfectly normal.

DUFFIN: All right. You lived on the edge a little bit. I don't like to put weird things in my body. However, I have agreed to try raw milk.

CHILDS: And I respect that. And so for your safety, I asked around for a very reputable place. And I have the milk right here. Are you excited, Karen? It's all happening.

DUFFIN: No, no.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILK POURING)

CHILDS: That's a tall cup.

DUFFIN: It looks exactly like milk.

CHILDS: It's a little bit, like, yellower.

DUFFIN: And when you swish it in the glass, it leaves, like, spots on the side.

CHILDS: There's definitely more going on.

DUFFIN: OK. Here we go. OK. Do you know what it tastes like? It tastes like milk, for starters.

CHILDS: Yeah.

DUFFIN: It also just tastes like cheese.

CHILDS: I wonder if that's, like, the fat that you're tasting then.

DUFFIN: Mary, I think I survived.

CHILDS: You made it, as far as we know so far.

DUFFIN: Yeah. Although I think we do have to say again the FDA and the CDC - oh, God. I feel sick.

CHILDS: Really?

DUFFIN: We do need to reiterate one more time that the CDC and the FDA strongly recommend that you do not do what I just did, so...

CHILDS: Drink at your own risk.

DUFFIN: Cheers.

(SOUNDBITE OF CYRIL ORNADEL'S "SUNDAY AFTERNOON")

CHILDS: Should I get you some crackers? I have some crackers.

DUFFIN: I'm going to go drink some Coke.

CHILDS: Yeah, smart.

DUFFIN: Yeah, I'm going to go drink chemicals.

(LAUGHTER)

DUFFIN: Oh, Mark would be so sad.

CHILDS: He would.

(SOUNDBITE OF CYRIL ORNADEL'S "SUNDAY AFTERNOON")

DUFFIN: If you are buying or selling something that the government does not want bought or sold, please let us know about it. Send us an email - planetmoney@npr.org. We're also on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

CHILDS: Today's show was produced by Nick Fountain and Liza Yeager. Bryant Urstadt is PLANET MONEY's editor, and Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer. Special thanks to Deborah Valenze, Patricia Zettler, Sally Fallon Morell, Peter Kennedy and Richard Williams for all their help.

DUFFIN: Also, we are looking for a summer intern. If you're a student or you've graduated within the last year and you want to learn how we make the show and help us make it, please apply. You can find out more information at npr.org.

I'm Karen Duffin.

CHILDS: And I'm Mary Childs. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF CYRIL ORNADEL'S "SUNDAY AFTERNOON")

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