Farmer refuses to let state regulate his raw milk sales



On a quiet, 100-acre farm in Cumberland County, Mennonite farmer Mark Nolt, his wife and his 10 children have for three years operated a dairy whose best-selling product is one the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture considers contraband: raw milk.

Pennsylvania requires its raw milk producers to obtain a permit, but Mr. Nolt stopped applying for the permit in 2005 and has continued to sell raw milk and dairy products in the face of multiple citations, a court injunction and two raids that resulted in $50,000 of product and equipment being seized from his farm in Newville.

The last raid, on April 25, resulted in more citations.

He will appear in front of District Judge Susan Day in a Mount Holly Springs courtroom to contest the citations, while advocates from the Weston A. Price Foundation and the Pennsylvania Independent Consumers and Farmers Association rally outside on his behalf.

Mr. Nolt's case is not the only one being protested by the Weston A. Price Foundation, an organization that promotes "nutrient-dense diets" and touts the health benefits of raw milk. Its members say that the PDA makes it difficult for dairies to get raw milk permits and that PDA inspectors "harass" raw milk producers. The regulations are unfair, they maintain, and the state laboratory that tests milk samples for pathogens is inaccurate.

Chris Ryder, a PDA spokesman, said the labs are "up to par" and that "there are procedures in place to ensure that contamination does not occur."

Advocates of raw milk say that it's safe, that it improves a person's health generally, in addition to curing everything from colic to allergies, and that it is no more dangerous than other food products, such as deli meat.

Melissa Kipe, who bought Mr. Nolt's products before she got her own cow, said her first child, who drank pasteurized and soy milk, had far more colds and ear infections than her other five children who have consumed raw milk since they were infants.

Pasteurization removes some of milk's nutritional benefits, she said.

But proper pasteurization is the only way to guarantee that disease-causing pathogens will be killed, said Bill Chirdon, director of food safety for the PDA. Still, Mr. Chirdon, who grew up drinking raw milk on a dairy farm, said stringent regulation can minimize the risk of pathogens.

"[Cows] will lay down in manure and they'll go to the bathroom on each other. ... Cows are quite filthy," he said. "So it's up to the farmer to have outstanding sanitation practices."

The two sides also differ on the risk raw milk poses. Ms. Kipe and Mr. Nolt both said they had never heard of anyone getting sick from drinking raw milk and that pasteurized milk causes just as many problems.

Last year, Mr. Chirdon said, he got 41 complaints from people who got sick from pathogens in raw milk and a state epidemiologist estimated there could be as many as 25 unreported cases for every one that was reported. Raw milk, which makes up about half of 1 percent of total milk sales, causes twice as many illnesses as pasteurized milk, Mr. Chirdon said.

For Mr. Nolt, this is more a matter of rights than of the benefits versus the risks of raw milk. Though he has around 200 customers, including several outside of Pennsylvania, to whom he ships his products, he said his dairy is not a commercial enterprise because he sells directly to his consumers and should not be subject to the regulation. He calls his transactions a "private contract."

"We're not an entity of the state," he said. "We're just private individuals trying to make a living off of the land and selling what we produce."

Mr. Nolt came to this conclusion three years ago and stopped renewing his permit after running a permitted raw milk farm for 18 years.

Furthermore, he and others maintain that dairies self-regulate when they sell directly to their buyers because the buyers can see how the milk is produced.

"My customers come once a week. ... I better live up to what they want or they won't come anymore," he said. "I have to be much, much more responsible than I would if I had an inspector that came once in a while."

Pennsylvania code says its regulations apply to anyone who sells raw milk.

In any case, Mr. Nolt believes the consumer, not the government, should decide what goes on the table.

"Our food is our responsibility," he said.


Moriah Balingit can be reached at mbalingit@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2533.




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