Why Organic Valley is About To Become the Latest Enemy of Raw Milk

Last Updated May 27, 2010 6:04 AM EDT

Organic Valley's recent decision to bar its dairies from selling raw milk makes the company the latest -- and most unlikely -- enemy of the burgeoning raw milk movement. After debating the issue for nearly a year, Organic Valley's board voted 4 to 3 last week to put the kibosh on sales of raw milk, which is milk that's not pasteurized to kill bacteria or homogenized to mix in the cream.

It's an ironic decision for a farmer's co-op that was founded on the idea of saving small family dairies. Because what's actually saving many small farms these days is raw, or unpasteurized, milk, which dairies can sell directly to customers for up to $10 a gallon, versus the comparatively measly $1.50 per gallon that companies like Organic Valley pay. (And that $1.50 is top dollar compared to what farmers get from non-organic milk processors.)

The estimated 150-200 Organic Valley dairies that now sell raw milk will have to make a decision whether to stop selling the increasingly controversial stuff, a move that would likely result in a dried up supply for devoted local customers, many of whom flock to farmer's markets and dairies directly to buy what they regard as liquid gold.

For Organic Valley, which despises the idea of being lumped together with other raw milk haters (big milk processors, the FDA, state health authorities, Wisconsin's governor), it was a heart-wrenching decision. The vote of its dairy executive committee earlier in the month was split straight down the middle at 20 votes in favor of selling raw milk and 20 against, which prompted last week's equally close board vote.

George Siemon, Organic Valley's CEO and one of the founding farmers, says he's a big fan of raw milk and if it were up to him he'd let diaries keep selling it. "There's nothing like drinking milk at 38 degrees cold two hours after it's been milked from the cow," says Siemon, who consumed raw milk from his own cows for years when he was a farmer. Siemon says that Organic Valley is going to be "reasonable" and give the affected dairies time to adjust.

Raw milk became an issue at Organic Valley, which has 1,652 dairy members, because some farmers felt like it was threatening the Organic Valley brand. Although no Organic Valley dairies have been implicated in making anyone sick, there have been several recent high profile outbreaks involving raw milk, including one in Michigan in March that prompted the Illinois Department of Health to issue dire warnings about drinking raw milk.

Advocates of raw milk insist that the dangers of drinking it are overstated and they associate it with all kinds of health effects, everything from curing kids' ear infections to promoting intestinal health and alleviating asthma.

Image from www.organicvalley.coop