Although State Sen. Kevin Ranker's bill exempting small-scale dairies from raw milk regulations is languishing in committee - "it fizzled out pretty quickly," Democratic Caucus spokesperson Michael Althauser says - the state still has among the nation's most liberal raw milk laws. Washington is one of 10 states in which raw milk can be legally sold at grocery stores.
Tenino's Cozy Vale Creamery, now the subject of an E. coli-related recall, sold its products at seven co-ops and natural foods stores around the Puget Sound, including Marlene's Market in Federal Way. The Washington State Department of Agriculture last week initiated the recall after finding E. coli in the dairy's milking parlor and processing area. Three illnesses have been linked with the contamination.
The Cozy Vale outbreak was the fourth raw milk outbreak in Washington since 2005, and the eighth in the U.S. this year: In 2011, more than 100 people nationwide were seriously sickened by raw milk.
"Raw milk is one of those food products, like raw hamburger, that really is just inherently dangerous," says Seattle food safety attorney Bill Marler, whose name recently appeared on New York Times columnist Mark Bittman's list of reasons for food activists to be thankful. Marler has been contacted by two of the families affected by the Cozy Vale outbreak.
"These are not bellyaches," Marler says. "This is acute kidney failure. These are very sick kids."
According to Marler, the proximity of a cow's udder to fecal matter makes it impossible to eliminate the risk of E. coli. Food safety experts hail pasteurization as the obvious solution: In the years before pasteurization standards were widely adopted, milk was the source of one-quarter of traceable food and waterborne illnesses. Milk now accounts for fewer than one percent of such illnesses.
But eaters who are wary of big ag and government interference in the food system have made a totem of raw milk, which often represents the end stage of an experimentation process that starts with filtered water and organic vegetables. Many raw milk devotees loudly credit the drink with elevating their health and restoring their happiness.
"There's a level of passion I find to be almost religious in its fervor," Marler says. "When I put up something on my blog about listeria, I won't get any comments. But when I post something about raw milk, I'll get 10, 15, 20 comments, most of them nasty."
Whole Foods last year stopped selling raw milk products, citing a need to develop nationwide corporate standards for the category. But Marler says few small natural food grocers have publicly followed suit, perhaps because they fear a backlash from raw milk believers.
"(Hemolytic Uretic Syndrome) cases are millions of dollars," Marler says. "The co-ops that sold this milk have enormous risks."
The risks are heightened, Marler says, by the common practice of shelving raw milk alongside pasteurized milk. Although Cozy Vale's customers aren't claiming they were misled into purchasing raw milk, Marler says a buyer told him, "I couldn't tell the difference."
Washington law mandates a warning label on raw milk.
"Unfortunately, maybe we can read the label," Marler says. "But kids don't have a chance against what mom and dad put in the kitchen."