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King County nixes raw milk at Vashon cafés

Kurt Timmermeister raises Jersey cows on his small, licensed farm on Beall Road, selling the raw milk they provide to Islanders. - Susan Riemer/staff photo
Kurt Timmermeister raises Jersey cows on his small, licensed farm on Beall Road, selling the raw milk they provide to Islanders.
— image credit: Susan Riemer/staff photo

Until last Wednesday, Islander Kirsten Gagnaire frequently stopped by Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie or Café Luna for a cappuccino made with raw cow’s milk, but now she and other Islanders who prefer beverages with milk that is straight from the cow have to make other choices.

Last week an inspector with Seattle & King County Public Health called each of the coffee establishments on Vashon that offered raw milk as a choice in their drinks and told them they must stop offering it immediately. According to public health officials, it is legal to sell raw, or unpasteurized, milk only in the container the dairy delivers it in.

This was news to the owners of the businesses that serve the raw milk, Natalie Sheard of Café Luna, Kathy Kush of The Burton Coffee Stand and Eva (who prefers to go by her first name), the owner of the roasterie. Sheard and Eva, who sell most of the raw milk, said they have sold it for some time in drinks, with the knowledge of public health inspectors, fully believing they were in compliance with the law.

According to Sheard, the health inspector told her that someone from Vashon called the department with a complaint that three coffee shops were offering raw milk. The inspector also informed her that the department was changing its interpretation of the Washington state Food Code and would be enforcing the code accordingly — meaning food service establishments could not serve raw milk in any prepared way.

Until they were called, Sheard and the others had posted what they thought were the mandatory signs, warning patrons of raw milk’s potential dangers. Sheard said that she even worked with the previous health inspector to enlarge the print on the warning to ensure it was in compliance with state code. Each of the establishments sold mostly pasteurized milk in their drinks, but when customers wanted raw milk, they could request it and pay extra, the owners said.

Sheard, who has reviewed the state food code in recent days, feels the county is acting incorrectly in making this change.

“I know for certain she is misinterpreting it,” Sheard said about the health inspector and the county’s review of the code.

A representative for the public health department said that the previous health inspector who had told Sheard to enlarge the type had made a mistake. State public health officials concur with the county and say that under state law, it is illegal for restaurants to prepare raw milk.

A quick Google search of raw milk shows that Vashon is only one of many communities to wrestle with the issue of raw milk and that its sale raises passions in both its detractors and supporters.

Those who believe the sale of raw milk should be banned entirely say milk has been pasteurized since the early 1900s for a reason — to keep people healthy — and that the risk to people is just too high given raw milk’s possible contamination with a host of bacteria, including E. coli, listeria and salmonella. While these bacteria would not cause a serious illness for healthy adults, the bacteria could cause severe health problems or even death in pregnant women, children, elderly people and others with weakened immune systems, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Because of its potential risks, it is legal to sell raw milk in only 24 states, and in Washington even dairies that are licensed by the state to sell raw milk must post a warning label of the possibility of health hazards on each carton. The last reported incident of illness from raw milk in Washington was in 2006, when two Whatcom County children were hospitalized with E. coli infections.

Proponents of the option to buy raw milk, on the other hand, cite the health benefits of raw milk — and the benefits of drinking local milk that was not transported far and where they may even know the farmer and farm.

For Gagnaire, who has had to change her cappuccino habits and has a history of digestive trouble, raw milk is the only kind of cow’s milk she can tolerate, she said. While she could drink other milks, such as soy, she appreciates the nutrients that raw milk offers in comparison.

Indeed, according to Island nutritionist Jennifer Foege, the pasteurization process — which typically heats milk to 161 degrees — kills all the naturally occurring enzymes, which enable people to digest the milk easily, making it possible for some people who otherwise could not tolerate cow’s milk to drink it without difficulty.

Pasteurization also kills the milk’s bacteria, both bad and good.

“Beneficial bacteria is one of the first lines of defense in the immune system,” Foege said. “A healthy GI (gastrointestinal)system can defend our bodies and keep us healthier. The less processed food you eat, the healthier your GI system is, the better your immune system.”

“Raw milk must be handled properly,” added Foege, who grew up on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania. “It starts with the farmer… I fully believe that if it’s handled properly, it’s totally safe.”

The farmer in this case is Kurt Timmermeister of Kurtwood Farms. He has been selling the coffee shops his raw milk and has a Grade A Dairy License from the Washington State Department of Agriculture. His license lets him sell only two items: raw cow’s milk and raw cow’s cream that has been hand separated.

He also has a processor’s license because by law raw milk must be bottled before it leaves the farm, he said.

On his farm on Beall Road, he has six Jersey cows, three of which are currently “in milk.” When asked why he sold raw milk given all the brouhaha it can create, he said simply, “I like it.”

In order to be licensed, dairy farmers must comply with many regulations and pass stringent tests, Timmermeister said, including monthly state tests of his milk, which look for any potential bacterial contamination and a quarterly state inspection of his farm.

The testing done on his cows have turned up no human pathogens.

Still, he said, people should be aware of the milk’s risks and respect them.

“I think people should take great care with it, without question,” he said. “I honestly don’t think small children, 1 or 2 years old, should drink it.”

But Timmermeister also values raw milk and how it is produced.

“I think it’s a fabulous product, really, only produced locally and on small farms. It’s of this land and for this land,” he said.

People who taste his milk, he said, will notice the difference immediately compared to the store milk they might be used to; it has more body and is richer, creamier and sweeter.

He feels also that the quality of milk in this country is going down as farming has become a big business and milk has become, as he called it, an “industrial product,” where it is not unusual for dairy farms to have 5,000 cows or more.

“If we put my milk side-by-side with milk from Smith Brothers, it’s obviously a different product.” Timmermeister said.

Kristen Gagnaire would agree.

“I am really careful about my diet and my kids’ diets,” she said, noting that she has not had any raw milk-related health problems since she started drinking it regularly a year ago.

“I wouldn’t buy it from just any place,” she said. “He knows what he’s doing. I know more about that milk than I know about the food in the grocery store. I don’t have a clue how that’s been processed and how it gets packaged.”

But according to Jason Kelly, the communications director for the Washington State Department of Agriculture, consumers still have to understand the risks. A dairy can follow the industry’s best practices, he said, and the facility can meet all the licensing and infrastructure requirements, but because the milk is not pasteurized, it could still be contaminated.

“Animals shed bacteria intermittently,” he said. “They could be tested one day, and the next day, bacteria could be present in the milk.”

The Department of Health recently reported that 13 people in Washington and Oregon have been sickened by salmonella contamination of alfalfa sprouts, and at least two have been hospitalized. It is news that is fairly common about a variety of foods and leads some people to point to what they feel is extreme action on the part of the state.

Timmermeister noted that people can buy any number of items that might be contaminated bacterially or be harmful in some way and carry limited warning labels: beef, spinach, tomatoes, chicken, pork, alcohol and cigarettes, for example.

“Café Luna can buy any single nut, berry, vegetable or meat and serve it, but they cannot buy raw milk and serve it,” he said. “It seems way out of line.”

The restriction also seems out of line to Eva, who owns the health food store The Minglement as well as the roasterie.

“We care about the health of our customers,” Eva said, noting that as a health food store, she and her staff pay close attention to their products, even checking all their supplements for bovine in the ingredients because of the risk of the animals having had mad cow disease.

The store gets fresh milk daily from Timmermeister, and it’s a popular item.

“The elderly people come in and are excited about having raw milk. We can’t keep it on our shelves,” she said.

Some wonder about why the state would allow milk to be sold in a store for people to take home but would not allow the same business to heat it and serve it as a latte.

Ned Therien, a health policy analyst at the State Board of Health, explained the difference this way: When consumers buy the product in a store, they will see the warning label on the milk, but in a restaurant, they might not see the warning

sign; the employees might not tell them, and they may be less likely to understand the potential risks associated with it.

Dave Gifford, the program manager of the Food Safety Division at the Washington Department of Health said that there are many people who believe that raw milk should not be served at all, but that the health department recognizes that people should have certain choices, so the compromise at this point is making raw milk available for purchase in containers only.

He wondered, too, why it was such an important issue for some people, he said. When milk is steamed for a latte or cappuccino, the typical temperature it is heated to is roughly the same as that in pasteurization. So if heat damages milk, he wondered, what’s the difference to people if it is raw then heated or simply pasteurized.

But like it does for many others, the issue goes beyond heat for the coffee shop owners.

“Kurt is a member of our community. We support his efforts to jump through the hoops and properly certify his farm and provide a wholesome product to the community.”

Sheard of Café Luna agrees. Timmermeister’s cows are not confined to a feed lot or in a factory dairy farm but are “out in the field eating grass, living healthy, normal lives as cows.” she said.

“Our customers will not be happy,” she added. “They are losing the right to choose something that is good for their health.”

State and county officials see it differently and feel their position on the potential risks is clear.

“Our job is public health, and we continue to argue that side of it,” Gifford said.

In the coming months, Sheard and Eva foresee many conversations about this topic and though they are not happy about this change, it may turn out to be a good thing, both Sheard and Eva said.

“We would like to question this ruling and have further discussion with the state and the health department about it,” Eva said.

“There is a lot of misinformation and mystery about raw milk and its benefits.This is the perfect opportunity to educate the public about it so that we can decide for ourselves whether or not we want to drink it.”

Box

The state will likely review the food code in 2009 and will determine in December if it will do so. Those who want to stay apprised of this issue and offer comment should e-mail indication of their interest to Dave.Gifford@doh.wa.gov. They will be sent periodic e-mails keeping them updated so that they can comment at the appropriate time if they wish.

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