By Sabriya Rice
The Dallas Morning News
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) This article takes a look at a family-run dairy farm in Texas that sells raw milk. Raw milk is milk that has not been put through the pasteurization process that kills most bacteria. Enthusiasts claim a range of health benefits, from the easing of allergy symptoms to increased bone density. But raw dairy vendors face scrutiny by scientists who see it as a fad and warn of the hazards.
Hours before sunrise, Kim Lambert greets her “little pets,” as she calls the herd of dairy cows that swarm toward her waiting to be milked.
As owner of K-Bar Dairy farm, Lambert has the routine down, briskly rounding up 31 cows and filing them seven at a time into the milking machine. It’s a schedule she and her husband follow most days of the year, with few breaks for vacation.
The family-run dairy farm in this Wise County town of fewer than 500 residents sells about 1,800 gallons of milk a month to a loyal clientele. Some drive over an hour just to buy the products.
K-Bar is one of the few farms in Texas that’s registered to sell “raw” milk. That is, milk that has not been put through the pasteurization process that kills most bacteria.
Texas is one of 31 states that allow its sale to consumers; here, it can only be bought directly on farms like Lambert’s.
Raw-milk farmers are emerging to fill a growing demand for local, “whole food” goods. But they struggle in the market. Of the 96 companies registered to sell raw dairy in Texas, only 47 are currently operating.
Enthusiasts claim a range of health benefits, from the easing of allergy symptoms to increased bone density. But raw dairy vendors face scrutiny by scientists who see it as a fad and warn of the hazards.
K-Bar Dairy’s owners now know those hazards all too well. Lambert thought about leaving the raw milk business this summer when K-Bar was forced to stop selling its dairy for about two months.
The presence of Brucella bacteria in two cows resulted in one woman being hospitalized and two 3-year old cows being put down. The woman has recovered and no one else was sickened.
But for Lambert, whose family prides itself on a product they both produce and drink, it was a serious blow. They had to dump out a month’s worth of supplies and recall milk that they had sold.
“I’m not a ‘woe is me’ person,” Lambert said. “But we do cry over spilled milk out here.”
It’s not hard to understand why people make their way to Paradise and find themselves on Lambert’s 200-acre farm.
Its small shop is reminiscent of an old-fashioned country store.
“I appreciate ya,” Lambert says to shoppers. Every customer is given her direct phone number.
The shop’s shelves are lined with candles, okra, honey and other products from local vendors.
Lambert’s dad, Steve Adair, rings the register. Her brother helps to milk the farm’s 51 Jersey cows, which Lambert’s nieces name after their favorite Disney princesses, like Moana, Belle and Ariel.
It’s this feeling of being able to personally connect with local farmers, and even to meet the cows that produce the milk, that customers say they crave. They say it tastes better and gives them choice.
“I’m lactose intolerant. But I can drink raw milk without any sickness,” said shopper Traci Church. She attempted to give her 3-year old daughter Emma Grace pasteurized milk during K-Bar’s two-month recall. “No Mommy, this is not my milk,” her daughter protested.
“You want people to have a choice in the marketplace,” noted Suresh Pillai, director of the National Center for Electron Beam Research at Texas A&M University, which focuses on new methods to increase food safety.
“But we are about reducing the health risk. That’s really what science is trying to do.”
It’s that challenge that keeps direct-to-consumer sales of raw milk at only a fraction of the $38.8 billion U.S. dairy industry. Getting hard numbers isn’t easy, partly because the industry is less regulated.
K-Bar milk sells for $6 a gallon. Lambert says she and her husband, Jeff, earn about $20,000 a month, but not just from milk. They survived the recall by selling other products, including meat, cheese and baby bulls.
Jack Curran, an analyst with California-based market research company IBISWorld, estimates farm-to-person raw milk sales are less than 5 percent of the overall dairy market.
“Small enough that it falls under an ‘other’ category for us.”
An illness outbreak can be devastating. “We talked about closing every couple of days,” admitted Lambert.
Raw dairy causes 839 times more illnesses and 45 times more hospitalizations than pasteurized products, estimated a study released this year in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.
The risk of an outbreak is about 150 times higher from raw milk than from pasteurized milk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The elderly, people with compromised immune systems and children younger than 5 are the most likely to get sick from consuming it, the federal health agency said.
In unpasteurized milk, microorganisms like salmonella, E.coli, brucellosis and listeria are not killed. That’s “the big sticking point” from a public health perspective, said Katherine Fogelberg, a doctor of veterinary medicine who teaches at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth.
“It’s not a black market. But it’s frowned upon,” she said.
The process to pasteurize milk dates back to 1860s France. Chemist Louis Pasteur discovered that bacteria could be destroyed by heating beverages for a sustained amount of time, then cooling them.
It started to become routine on U.S. farms in the 1920s, during an era when infectious diseases spread like wildfire. But the National Conference of State Legislatures, which has been monitoring laws on raw milk, says new language over the past two decades has given more flexibility.
“Not just with raw milk, but for all sorts of cottage foods,” said NCLS program director, Doug Farquhar. The small operations come with big risks, which makes the political debate tricky.
“Do you want consumers to have the right to drink raw milk?” he asked. “Or are you more worried about the public health issue?”
Still, even the most hesitant public health researchers acknowledged certain benefits.
The do-it-yourself culture can be empowering for people taking efforts to improve their health.
There’s also value to the trust and relationship-building that local industries must create in order to survive in the market, an element that often gets lost in the age of mass-produced goods.
“There are some benefits,” Fogelberg said. “Just not from nutritional or medical perspective.”
Health officials will randomly test K-Bar milk for at least one year. The store also is logging names and numbers of every purchaser, so they can quickly be reached if another incident occurs.
And the farm has republished its Facebook page, which Lambert shut down to stop misinformation when some of her 3,000 followers touted health benefits not supported by health officials.
Lambert, who has been in the dairy business since 1994 with no incident, thinks the farm will recover, “but the next three months will really tell.”
At K-Bar, Lambert says they take every precaution to avoid contamination. The cows are disinfected before and after being milked, and they graze on a pasture with little mud, where bacteria can thrive.
But the risk can’t be fully eliminated.
“You ask me if it’s going to happen again, and I can’t tell you that,” she said. “But it’s a product that we believe in. And I know it’ll take a while to earn back trust.”