Aspen Bokor had grown up around cows so now that she and her husband Nick had a farm in Western Washington, they thought about getting one. 

As she went searching through CraigsList, she spotted a post for a dairy cow. Good idea, she thought, since Nick loves milk — to the tune of up to one-half gallon or so a day. It looked like a good cow and was advertised as being healthy.

In addition to buying Peaches, the Guernsey cow posted on Facebook, she bought 2 more cows, both Guernseys. She’s currently milking 2 cows, Peaches and Delilah. She gets an average of 10 gallons a day. Peaches are due to have a calf in March. 

Two years ago, Bokor launched Peachy Keen micro-dairy. She was on her way. But there was more to come.

On Sept. 9 this year, Peachy Keen micro dairy was licensed to sell raw milk. As such, it is the only dairy in Skagit County licensed to sell raw milk. Washington state is one of 11 states that allows the sale of raw milk in retail stores. Twenty states prohibit the sale of raw milk for human consumption.

While some people swear by the health and nutritional benefits of raw milk, others warn of its dangers.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/rawmilk/raw-milk-questions-and-answers.html), the risk of getting sick from drinking contaminated raw milk is greater for infants and young children, older adults, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems, such as people with cancer, an organ transplant, or HIV, than it is for healthy older children and adults. But healthy people of any age can get very sick or even die if they drink raw milk contaminated with harmful germs.

Raw milk is milk that hasn’t been pasteurized to kill harmful foodborne bacteria such as E. coli, Brucella, Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, Listeria, and Salmonella that might be in the milk.  

The Washington State Department of Health (https://doh.wa.gov/you-and-your-family/food-safety/raw-milk) says that milk can get contaminated in various ways, among them, animal feces coming into direct contact with the milk; bacteria that live on the animal’s skin; feces, dirt, and processing equipment; and unsanitary conditions in the milk processing plant.

According to the Washington State Agriculture Department, foodborne illness outbreaks associated with raw milk or raw milk products such as soft cheese, yogurt, and ice cream occur every year. That’s why this label is required for any sale: 

“WARNING: This product has not been pasteurized and may contain harmful bacteria. Pregnant women, children, the elderly, and persons with lowered resistance to disease have the highest risk of harm from the use of this product.”

Yet despite this targeted advice, Washington’s Agriculture Department describes the demand for raw milk as “explosive,” citing an increase in raw milk dairies from 6 in 2006 to 39 in 2016 in Washington alone. Since then, even more, have come on board.

When explaining why the state is licensing raw milk dairies, a state department official said that it’s “a practical way for dealing with reality.” If raw-milk sales are illegal, consumers will seek it out anyway, putting themselves and their families at risk.

A study cited by the CDC (https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/rawmilk/rawmilk-outbreaks.html) found that states that allow the sale of raw milk had more outbreaks linked to drinking raw milk than those that didn’t allow sales of raw milk.

More about Peaches

Bokor was happy to learn that Peaches is a registered pure-bred Guernsey cow, formerly owned by a 4-H member. She also discovered that Guernsey milk, often referred to as “golden milk,” has a lot of health benefits.

The unique golden color of Guernsey milk comes from an unusually high content of orange beta-carotene, which the body converts into Vitamin A (retinol), according to a Mount Sinai Healthcast newsletter (https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/supplement/beta-carotene). According to the same newsletter, the body needs that for a robust immune system, good vision, and eye health, and for healthy skin and mucous membranes.

Bokor also learned that most Guernsey cows produce milk containing the A2 protein, while milk from most high-producing cows such as Holsteins contains the A1 protein.

A1 and A2 are genetic variants of one another that differ in structure by only one amino acid. However, some research (https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/a1-vs-a2-milk#a1-concerns) shows that for some people, Bokor among them,  who generally self-report an intolerance to milk, or who are lactose intolerant, A 2 milk may be a good alternative to prevent commonly reported stomach upset complaints. But that’s also true for lactose-free milk.

“It was complete luck. We got exactly what we wanted even though we didn’t know that it was what we wanted,” said Bokor, smiling at the irony of it.

Bokor said her dairy’s raw milk immediately proved to be popular. Not long after the dairy received its license to sell raw milk, it was sold out. She said she had had a feeling there would be a lot of interest in it. 

Getting licensed

Getting licensed to sell raw milk is not a one-stop deal. The state’s agriculture department will first inspect a dairy as part of the standard licensing process for a Grade A dairy. Later, periodic inspections will check that the dairy is complying with the Retail Raw Milk rules and regulations.

The animals must also test negative for diseases that can be transmitted to people through raw milk. The department will collect and test the dairy’s Retail Raw Milk approximately once a month. Legal test results must not exceed certain standards for harmful bacteria.

Currently, WSDA conducts surveillance testing for these human pathogens: Campylobacter, E. coli O157:H7, and Shiga toxin E.Coli, Listeria monocytogenes, and Salmonella. 

The department WSDA also tests products for antibiotic residues and performs surveillance testing for pathogens and pesticides.

If the test results are above the standards listed by the department or are positive for antibiotic residues, pesticides, or strains of human pathogenic organisms, the dairy will receive a notice of non-compliance, which may trigger a recall. Although some recalls are due to illness outbreaks, others are due to failing test results.

Bottomline, a raw-milk dairy must meet the same food-safety standards as milk from conventional Grade A dairy.

 A licensed raw-milk dairy can sell its Retail Raw Milk only directly to the end consumer or to locations that sell to the end (retail) consumer in labeled containers. Retail Raw Milk cannot be sold in restaurants or institutions such as schools, nursing homes, or hospitals.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), does not allow raw milk to be distributed or sold across state lines.

Knowledge and confidence

Bokor said she has done a great deal of research on raw milk and believes that “exceptional milk handling” can prevent raw milk from being contaminated and keep it safe to drink.

“Knowledge,” she answered when asked how she fits the science that advises against raw milk with her faith in it. She explains that milk is a medium and because bad bacteria can multiply in it, it’s her job to make sure it doesn’t get in the milk in the first place.

When it comes to “exceptional milk handling” she said it comes down, for the most part, to sanitation — keeping everything absolutely clean.

Even so, some dairy owners whose raw milk did get people sick — sometimes severely so — believed that they had been doing everything right.  

Bokor, meanwhile, has a separate room for handling the milk, which includes a stainless steel sink, a refrigerator with a digital thermometer, and Petri dishes. After milking, she quickly cools the milk to 36 degrees. And while the state tests the dairy’s milk once a month, she tests each batch to make sure it’s safe to drink.

Her husband Nick says she’s a stickler for detail, perhaps because she spent 12 years working as a helicopter mechanic. No mistakes are allowed.

Bokor is pleased with the way things are going at the dairy and is even thinking of expanding it, but not immediately. She said she had a feeling that there would be a lot of interest. The dairy already has a long list of potential customers. However, the expansion will take time and some added investment. For example, while she’s currently using surge belly milkers, she would likely want to get more modern equipment.

Even so, she’s happy that she’s making enough money to feed the two milking cows. And she’s happy that they seem to be content with the care she’s providing for them.

It’s not your grandfather’s E. coli

Many farmers and old-timers believe that E. coli illness outbreaks are caused by the “over-pampered” immune systems of the city and suburban dwellers.

“We drank raw milk all of the time and never got sick,” they’ll say.

Or: “No one we knew ever got E. coli.”

But the potentially fatal form of E. coli that’s causing the outbreaks today wasn’t around 40 years ago.

As explained in simple layman’s terms by microbiology food scientist Karen Killinger formerly of Washington State University, what led to ”the birth” of E.coli O157:H7 was a disease-causing form of E. coli that absorbed some genes from another pathogen to produce a virulent toxin and adjust to acidic environments. The new form of pathogenic E. coli that emerged was many times more virulent than its weaker cousins. 

Symptoms of E. coli infection

The symptoms of E. coli infections vary for each person but often include severe stomach cramps and diarrhea, which is often bloody. 

Some patients may also have a fever. Most patients recover within five to seven days. Anyone who has consumed raw milk and developed these symptoms should seek prompt medical attention and tell their doctor about their possible exposure to the bacteria. 

However, others can develop severe or life-threatening symptoms and complications, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

About 5 to 10 percent of those diagnosed with E. coli infections develop a potentially life-threatening kidney failure complication, known as a hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). Symptoms of HUS include fever, abdominal pain, feeling very tired, decreased frequency of urination, small unexplained bruises or bleeding, and pallor.

Many people with HUS recover within a few weeks, but some suffer permanent injuries or death. This condition can occur among people of any age but is most common in children younger than five years old because of their immature immune systems, older adults because of deteriorating immune systems, and people with compromised immune systems such as cancer patients.

People who experience HUS symptoms should immediately seek emergency medical care. 

People with HUS will likely be hospitalized because the condition can cause other serious and ongoing problems such as hypertension, chronic kidney disease, brain damage, and neurologic problems.

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