For north St. Anthony Park resident Charlene Chan-Muehlbauer, it all comes down to the health of her 22-year-old daughter. “To protect [her] access to raw milk,” says Chan-Muehlbauer, “I’m willing to go to jail. But to be jailed for something like this—it’s just wrong.”
Chan-Muehlbauer is reacting to the latest development in a long-running dispute between the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) and families like hers, who believe so strongly in the nutritional and curative properties of unpasteurized milk that they’re willing to risk legal sanctions in order to get it.
In April, the MDA issued a formal warning that Chan-Muehlbauer and her husband, Gary Muehlbauer, could be subject to criminal prosecution unless she stops using their garage as a drop site for distribution of raw milk shipments from Sibley County farmer Mike Hartmann.
It’s a 90-mile drive to the Twin Cities in Hartmann’s refrigerated truck. When the milk arrives at a pre-arranged time, it sits in Styrofoam coolers in Chan-Muehlbauer’s detached garage until the approximately 20 families in her network pick up their allotments.
“Sometimes people wait overnight” to pick up their milk share, says Chan-Muehlbauer, but “we’ve all agreed that this is what we want.” She stresses that, aside from purchasing her own share of the milk, she’s not involved in “any financial dealings” with other families. “I just open my garage.”
This is not the first time that Farmer Hartmann has made news. In a 2005 decision in a case involving Hartmann, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that farmers had the right to sell products at their farms without a license. But the court also found that Hartmann and other farmers are not exempt from “substantive regulation” by the state.
It’s that definition of what constitutes the proper limits of regulation that provides the flashpoint for thedispute between the MDA and Chan-Muehlbauer. The issue was further exacerbated in 2010 when health department officials traced outbreaks of food-borne bacterial disease to Hartmann’s farm. In the most prominent case, there were eight documented cases of illness caused by a strain of E. coli found only on the Hartmann farm.
MDA spokesman Mike Schommer says, “Minnesota law is pretty simple. Raw milk sales are allowed if they take place on the farm. Sales that don’t follow that model are in violation.”
Chan-Muehlbauer disputes almost every aspect of the state’s argument. “People are not buying milk from me—they’re buying from the farm,” she says. “It’s not like this is a hallucinogenic substance. I don’t think [I’m doing] anything wrong or illegal.”
As for the 2010 outbreak of disease traced to Hartmann’s farm, Chan-Muehlbauer notes that no milk or milk products from the Hartmann farm ever tested positive for the unique E. coli strain found elsewhere on the farm. She doesn’t believe the state made their case. “I don’t think the science is clear,” she says, adding that far more people are sickened by E. coli outbreaks in raw produce, deli meats or seafood than in raw milk.
Dr. Kirk Smith, the Minnesota Department of Health official responsible for investigating the 2010 disease outbreaks, acknowledges that raw milk currently accounts for a relatively low percentage of documented cases of bacterial infections like E .coli, but says that’s because unpasteurized milk represents only 2 or 3 percent of all milk consumed.
“Raw milk is an inherently risky product,” he argues, “because poop comes out of the same end of the cow as milk.” Smith points to recent research from the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that finds that the risk of infectious disease from raw milk products (including milk, cheese and yogurt) is 150 times higher than from pasteurized milk and milk products.
Smith also disputes one of the other most prominent claims of raw milk adherents—that pasteurization destroys important nutritional elements of milk. “There isn’t any scientific data that show that raw milk is any more healthful than pasteurized,” he says. Smith acknowledges that the heating process of pasteurization destroys nutrients like Vitamin C, but he says Vitamin C occurs at insignificant levels in raw milk anyway.
For Chan-Muehlbauer, the health benefits of raw milk are indisputable. Eighteen months ago, her daughter, Amanda, tested positive in a blood test for rheumatoid arthritis, a painful and debilitating autoimmune disorder that normally affects the joints. “She started getting aches and pains when she entered college,” says her mother. Eventually the young woman was forced to withdraw from college and was bedridden for seven months.
Unwilling to subject herself to the potential side effects of standard medications prescribed for rheumatoid arthritis, Chan-Muehlbauer’s daughter turned to an older remedy—raw milk. “She’s been drinking half a gallon of raw milk a day,” Chan-Muehlbauer says.
Eighteen months after beginning the regime, the young woman has returned to college. Chan-Muehlbauer is convinced that raw milk cured her child. “I don’t believe the MDA is acting out of malice,” she says, “but they need to allow consumers to make their own judgments.”
Responds Schommer, “Our commission is to protect the integrity of the food supply. We’re a law enforcement agency. If people wish to change the law, that’s one thing; but to ignore the law is not a good idea. It doesn’t work.”