Raw milk's supporters are at once modern-day rebels and throwbacks to an older, simpler time. They are health-food aficionados who dismiss the health authorities. There's long been a libertarian streak running through the raw-milk crowd. A Christian one, too. Now it's attracting another demographic entirely: advocates of local food. Dairymen are seizing that opportunity. Five...

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Unpasteurized milk is a curious thing. It costs up to $13 a gallon. It says right on the carton: “WARNING: This product … may contain harmful bacteria.”

Yet people are passionate about it. Almost evangelistic.

So in early December, when the state announced that raw milk from Dungeness Valley Creamery in Sequim was linked with three E. coli cases, the reaction was, well … emotional.

“Lies,” more than one raw-milk drinker posted on the Dungeness dairy’s Web site, in response to the state’s announcement.

“Trickery,” another supporter wrote.

“Despicable,” wrote a third.

Never mind that health authorities like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Mayo Clinic say you shouldn’t drink the stuff. To some, the bad news is evidence of a conspiracy. It involves Big Ag trying to stamp out the little guy, Big Government pushing its way into our kitchens, sleazy lawyers trying to make a buck, and scientists who malign a key to good health.

Now, Whole Foods Markets has become a target. The company recently halted raw-milk sales nationwide, saying it needed a “rigorous companywide standard.” It was another sign, one pro-raw-milk blogger wrote, of the “ever more sinister campaign against food rights.” There are calls for a boycott of the company.

Raw milk’s supporters are at once modern-day rebels and throwbacks to an older, simpler time. They are health-food aficionados who dismiss the health authorities.

There’s long been a libertarian streak running through the raw-milk crowd. A Christian one, too. Now it’s attracting another demographic entirely: advocates of local food.

“It is an emblem of noncorporate food,” best-selling author Michael Pollan, godfather of the local-food movement, wrote in an e-mail to The Seattle Times.

Dairymen are seizing that opportunity. Five years ago, there were six licensed raw-milk dairies in Washington; today there are 28.

And though Pollan thinks people should be able to eat what they want, he notes there is a disconnect.

“I think people turn a blind eye to some of the food safety concerns,” he wrote.

Indeed, along with the growth in raw milk’s popularity has come a rise in dairy-related food-borne-illness outbreaks, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer research, advocacy and education organization.

Which brings us back to the Dungeness creamery and its owner, Jeff Brown. During a long morning spent milking, soothing and coaxing cows, Brown blasted the government overseers whose actions temporarily disrupted his business. He spoke about freedom. And he said the truth is simple:

“Everything God designed is good for you.”

“Value-added” niche

People don’t get into the dairy business because of the hours, or the glamour.

“My claim to fame is: I’m the world’s slowest milker,” Brown announced proudly. A sturdy man of 58, he loves to talk.

He remembers when he was 14, “praying the dairy industry would stay good so I could milk cows.”

He started his own farm in 1971 and began contracting with Darigold, which pasteurized and distributed his milk. But Brown, like dairymen all over the country, worried about declining wholesale prices.

“In order to make it, you have to milk a lot of cows and your cow numbers have to constantly be getting bigger,” Brown explained. Otherwise, “your profit margin will continue to shrink.”

In order to stick with about 60 cows, Brown saw just one option: sell a “value-added” product.

For years, people had asked Brown if he’d sell his milk straight from the cow, unpasteurized. The heating process kills most disease-producing organisms, but it also changes the taste.

With the surge of interest in local food, Brown and his family saw opportunity. They got their raw-milk license in 2006.

“Five years earlier, I don’t think the market was there,” he said.

Today, the Dungeness creamery is one of the larger raw-milk producers, bottling more than 200 gallons a day.

It used to be, you’d have to go directly to the farm or a cooperative “drop site” to buy raw milk. Now it’s increasingly in grocery stores — and it flies out the door.

Warning labels don’t hurt sales, Brown said. They’re “a badge of honor.”

True believers

People who like raw milk really like raw milk.

They say it fights everything from allergies to asthma, digestive problems to learning disabilities. It eases arthritis pain and improves cholesterol, boosts immunity and clears cataracts.

When you pasteurize milk, they say, it kills key nutrients and leads to things like heart disease.

The FDA says none of this is scientifically proven. After finding “raw milk, no matter how carefully produced, may be unsafe,” the agency banned its interstate sale in 1987.

Washington is one of seven states that allows its retail sale. Most states permit limited sales, such as on the farm. It’s illegal in 10 states.

In states with limited availability, people drive hundreds of miles to get their raw-milk fix. They break laws and stage protests. They have long maintained they’re being picked on.

“Never in the annals of health and nutrition has there been a food so maligned, lied about and conspired against as raw milk,” a national group pushing universal access posted on its Web sites.

When Dungeness customers learned The Seattle Times was working on this story, they flooded the paper with eager calls and e-mails.

Mary Solberg, of Sequim, was one of them. She was drawn to raw milk’s flavor, but she heard there could be risks, so she did some reading and visited Dungeness. After that, she was satisfied.

“They’re here in the community,” she said. “I just felt safe.”

Illnesses on the rise

Public-health authorities say raw milk is risky, local or not. They cite two main reasons. The first is, it’s consumed uncooked. The second has to do with the guts of cows.

All cows — actually, all warm-blooded animals — have E. coli in their guts. Some strains of it are harmless. Others are not. They’re called Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, and “cows are the main source where these organisms live,” said J. Kathryn MacDonald, a state epidemiologist.

The Shiga toxin doesn’t hurt the cows, but it can make humans very, very sick — as in kidney failure, coma, stroke, prolonged hospitalization. Even death.

We get E. coli illness by swallowing the bug.

Actually, by swallowing tiny bits of manure containing the bacteria. “This happens more often than we would like to think,” the CDC said on its Web site.

Experts say hamburger is a big culprit. The good news is, heat kills E. coli and other pathogens. That’s why food-safety experts say to cook hamburger thoroughly. It’s called a “kill step.”

For milk, pasteurization is the kill step. Without it, there’s nothing between you and any bugs that might be swimming around. The chance there’s a deadly pathogen in a particular glass of milk may be small, but it’s a risk no one has to take.

James E. McWilliams, author of a book questioning the locavore movement, puts it bluntly:

“To me, it’s Russian roulette,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The whole of human history is about humans being taken down by diseases transferred from animals to people. Pasteurization was perhaps the most significant advance ever made in reducing the transmission.”

Indeed, despite cleanliness rules and inspections, pathogens still get in. Every year since 2005, the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) has identified food-borne pathogens in retail raw milk.

Just last month, the WSDA found E. coli in raw milk from Jackie’s Jersey Milk, a Bellingham company. It was linked with several cases of illness, according to state officials.

The agency has never found pathogens in its tests of pasteurized milk, nor has it linked cases of human illness to pasteurized milk.

In all, between 2005 and 2009, 395 Washingtonians with lab-confirmed cases of food-borne pathogens reported consuming raw-milk products shortly before getting sick, the state Department of Health says.

Nationally, food-borne-illness outbreaks associated with dairy have “increased dramatically” since 2004, “in large part due to a rise in outbreaks from unpasteurized dairy products,” according to Center for Science in the Public Interest. Raw milk is one of a few products for which the nonprofit says “Do Not Eat.”

Using data from the CDC, the group found that raw milk accounts for 80 percent of milk-related food-borne-illness outbreaks nationally, yet it’s only a fraction of total milk sales. The CDC said there have been at least two deaths nationally connected with raw milk between 1993 and 2006.

Proponents like to point out there are E. coli outbreaks associated with vegetables and fruits, too. So why focus on milk? It’s because E. coli isn’t inherent to vegetables like it is to cows. The bug has to be introduced somehow, like through irrigation water. The key point: When you hear about food-borne illness, think manure.

Trying to keep clean

Cows create a lot of waste. They do it in the barn and in the fields. They do it while they’re being milked. It’s liquid and it splatters. It’s on their legs and tails and udders. Preventing waste from getting in the milk is all-important.

Every morning and every evening, Brown ushers his herd into the milking parlor, eight at a time. He dips each cow’s teats in an iodine solution, which helps reduce, but not eliminate, bacteria. Then he wipes them with a cloth. He gets a fresh cloth after four cows.

It’s easy to see potential problems. He doesn’t exactly study the udders to make sure he’s cleaned every last inch. And it’s messy. On a recent visit, one cow, who was sore, fussed as Brown started the milking device. She pooped, splattering Brown’s face, but he didn’t seem to notice. She fussed so much that the device fell to the floor, and the cow stepped on it. When Brown finally got her off it, he sprayed it with a hose. Then he put it on the next cow.

“When they get upset, this is the result,” he said later, wiping his face and arms. Then he was ready for the next group of eight.

Danger sign?

Last spring, problems arose at Dungeness, according to state records. Each month, the state tests milk for certain indicators, like coliform bacteria, that may suggest issues with cleanliness or animal health. In May, one indicator at Dungeness was 10 times the legal limit. In June, another indicator was 15 times the legal limit. The farm exceeded counts in July, September, November, December and January, too.

The amounts weren’t enough to be harmful to humans, but the state sees high counts as signs of trouble and it requires producers to bring them down.

Asked repeatedly about the numbers, Brown kept changing the subject.

“If they really thought there was a problem,” he said of the state agriculture department, “they would say: don’t sell the milk. They … never did that.”

Tracing a pathogen

In September, a Snohomish girl tested positive for E. coli illness. In November, a Redmond boy briefly was hospitalized with it. That month, a Vancouver, Wash., man was diagnosed and said he missed work for nearly three weeks. All have recovered.

Authorities swooped in with questionnaires for the patients and later found a single link among the three: Dungeness milk.

According to MacDonald, the epidemiologist, the bugs that infected the Redmond boy and the Vancouver man “had the exact same DNA fingerprint.” Investigators concluded, then, they “had a common source.”

The Snohomish girl was infected with a different strain of the pathogen, and inspectors found that same strain on the farm — a genetic match with the one that made her sick.

Investigators concluded there was just one way that particular bug could have gotten from the farm to the girl. “It was the milk she drank,” MacDonald said.

But here’s where Brown and the dairy’s supporters get up in arms. Inspectors never found E. coli in the milk. It was in manure.

To the Brown family, this was proof of “government bias against raw milk.”

Not so, said MacDonald.

“It puts that particular strain of E. coli on that farm,” she said. “And somehow or another, it got in the milk — which is not hard to imagine, if you think about where the manure comes from and where the milk comes from. It’s not a very far distance.”

Milk not recalled

There was no recall of Dungeness milk. Recalls are intended to remove contaminated product from store shelves, and in this case, the pathogen wasn’t found in the milk. Some stores, including Whole Foods, stopped selling Dungeness milk briefly. It was back on the shelves until earlier this month, when the retailer stopped selling raw milk nationwide. A spokeswoman declined to elaborate.

Brown thinks he will make up for the lost sales. Even after his dairy was connected with the three E. coli cases, many customers remained loyal. Some made a point to go out and buy more.

Mary Solberg’s husband, for instance, proceeded to immediately “open and drink our new half gallon.”

Better to trust the small farmer than some faceless corporation, she said.

Brown maintains the government has unfairly damaged his farm’s reputation.

“You know how you can tell they’re lying?” he said. “Their lips are moving.”

A dairy changes course

Tim Lukens used to feel a lot like Brown. In 2006, the state descended on his Grace Harbor Farms, near Bellingham, after two children were diagnosed with E. coli illness. Initially, Lukens said, he “didn’t want to believe” his milk was responsible.

He has since learned a lot. First of all, cows shed the E. coli bacteria intermittently. The milk could be fine one day, contaminated the next.

Besides, he said, “You cannot clean a cow’s udder off well enough every time” in a commercial operation.

In addition, scooping up milk samples for testing is like fishing. Just because the WSDA doesn’t catch anything doesn’t mean there aren’t any fish in the lake.

“What happens if there was E. coli floating in there and you didn’t happen to get it?” he said. “All it takes is one bottle with a few cells.”

And lastly, there is the problem of temperature. Bacteria grows in temperatures over 40 degrees. Dairymen quickly cool their milk, but there’s no guaranteeing what happens when it gets to the consumer.

“What starts as one or two cells could grow into hundreds,” Lukens said.

He stopped selling raw milk after he learned all this.

“My opinion is, there’s no possible way you can keep fecal contamination out of a milk stream,” he said. “We came very close to one of the worst things somebody can experience — causing some kind of permanent malady in someone else’s life.”

Some people say Lukens has it all wrong. “Some of them are still convinced I got framed,” he said. “I didn’t.”

Brown, however, remains steadfast.

“God designed raw milk; man messed with it,” he said. “You draw your own conclusions.”

Maureen O’Hagan: 206-464-2562 or mohagan@seattletimes.com