Most of the milk from the dairy cows on South Pork Ranch ends up pasteurized -- heat-treated to reduce the chance that the people who drink it will get sick.
But every month, 300 gallons of the milk are sold raw, much of it to about five dozen regular customers who arrive at the central Illinois farm toting their own containers to tap the creamy drink from a squat, stainless-steel vat in a room next to the milking stalls.
That choice has put the farm's owners, Keith Parrish and Donna O'Shaughnessy, at the center of a particularly American food fight between passionate defenders of personal choice and health officials who warn that drinking farm-fresh milk can be life-threatening.
The federal government and virtually all public health agencies oppose consumption of raw milk because it can carry dangerous bacteria including E. coli 0157:H7, listeria and campylobacter. Last month, 13 people in Michigan were sickened by campylobacter in an outbreak tied to raw milk sold at a northern Indiana farm.
Raw milk drinkers argue that they should be allowed to decide whether to take the risk. Many who drink raw milk believe the unprocessed, nonhomogenized version is more nutritious and can help with ailments such as allergies, asthma and gastrointestinal issues, though public health agencies and nearly every major medical association in the country say those benefits are unproven.
"It's more than a health issue; it's a human rights issue," said Kathryne Pirtle of Addison, a professional musician who credits raw milk with eliminating the chronic pain she experienced for 25 years. "Real food and the raw milk movement are the answers to our health care crisis and the future of our populations."
The FDA bans interstate sales of raw milk, but states regulate its sale within their borders. Sales are now legal in 27 states under some circumstances, with bills to legalize it pending in Georgia and Wisconsin. In several states, including California, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, raw milk can be sold in retail stores.
In Illinois, consumers who want raw milk must take their own containers directly to the farm. Another option is a cow share, in which a consumer contracts with a farmer or "milk club" operator to buy a share of the animal. As part-owner, the customer is entitled to some of the cow's milk.
Some suspect these arrangements, which are not regulated or inspected in Illinois, may be one reason that federal officials are cracking down on raw milk sales, stepping up efforts to warn consumers of the dangers and urging states to strengthen their regulations.
Parrish and O'Shaugnessy raised four children on raw milk and are avid proponents of its virtues. Though the Wisconsin company that purchases the farm's regular milk (about 2,000 gallons a month) recently said it would stop buying unless the couple ceases selling raw milk, they vow to continue.
"Consumers have a responsibility to decide what they will put in their mouths," O'Shaughnessy said. "It isn't our goal to convert everyone into drinking raw milk. We're not evangelists. We're just farmers."
From 1998 to 2008, 85 outbreaks of human infections resulting from consumption of raw milk were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including a total of 1,614 illnesses, 187 hospitalizations and two deaths.
The outbreaks about five per year over the last few years are due primarily to campylobacter, salmonella and E. coli, according to Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the CDC's food-borne and bacterial diseases division. "We view it as an ongoing problem, one that puts everyone who drinks raw milk at risk," he said.
Drinking contaminated raw milk can cause vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain. Most healthy people recover quickly, but the bacteria can be especially harmful for pregnant women, the elderly, children or those with weakened immune systems.
What confounds health officials is the sense that the more they warn against raw milk, the more people seem to want it. In addition to the supposed health benefits, drinking raw milk is seen as a way to support local farmers and bypass the industrial food chain.
"In America we've lost our sense of community, and we're trying to re-establish ties to that which sustains us," said Tim Wightman, founder and president of the Farm-to-Consumers Foundation and the author of the Raw Milk Handbook, a resource guide for farmers. "Raw milk is the gateway; it allows us to begin to question everything we call normal.' But this is widely misunderstood by governments and corporations."
Wightman says raw milk drinkers run the gamut from older farmers and hippies to doctors who drink it in secret. But health-conscious mothers are the core group pushing sales these days, he said.
Jill Cruz of Chicago was already eating organic when she first looked into raw milk. Her 4-year-old daughter, Sonia Rose, had a cavity, and Cruz wondered whether the cause was a nutritional deficiency. Safety is not a concern, she said.
"No food is 100 percent safe," said Cruz, the leader of the Chicago Chapter of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a raw milk advocate. "I don't think anyone out there can guarantee that."
For Cruz, raw milk is part of a lifestyle that includes eating what she calls "real" or "traditional" food. She wants to know where her food comes from and support local, small-scale sustainable farms.
"It's going back to how people used to eat 100 years ago on a farm," she said. "I drink raw milk, make my own bread and don't eat any processed foods. Plus I know there are health benefits from the milk."
Though the exact figure is unknown, an estimated 1 percent to 3 percent of milk consumers drink it raw. Many go to great lengths to procure the controversial drink, which can sell at $4 to $16 a gallon. Some are reluctant to talk about where they get their milk, lest their supplier be shut down.
Wisconsin farmer Max Kane, for example, was recently ordered by the state to turn over his list of clients and the farmers with whom he works. A court blocked that order pending Kane's appeal, and Wisconsin may legalize raw milk sales.
Raw milk, which fans say tastes like unsweetened vanilla ice cream, is hardly a new phenomenon, of course. People have been gulping it straight from the source since sheep and goats were domesticated in the 8th or 9th century B.C. A healthy animal's milk is sterile, but it can be contaminated by an infection in the udder, feces, dirt or unclean processing equipment.
Before pasteurization was instituted in the 1920s, disease outbreaks from raw milk were the No. 1 food safety concern in the country, the CDC's Tauxe said.
Pasteurized milk is heated to a specific temperature for a set period to slow the growth of harmful pathogens. Some enzymes are destroyed, but "the enzymes in raw animal milk are not known to be important in human health," said Dr. Michele Jay-Russell, a veterinarian who is a food safety and security specialist at the Western Institute for Food Safety at the University of California, Davis. "Vitamin C is also reduced by heat treatment, but even raw milk is not a good source of vitamin C."
The FDA and public health experts say there are no "meaningful" nutritional differences between pasteurized and raw milk.
The Weston A. Price Foundation, which advocates for community-supported farms, pasture feeding of livestock and universal access to clean, certified raw milk, disagrees. It also argues that pasteurization has outlived its usefulness.
"Modern stainless steel tanks, milking machines, refrigerated trucks and inspection methods make pasteurization absolutely unnecessary for public protection," its Web site states.
"Not true," responded Tauxe, who says the dairy environment is inherently dirty. "Animal and bacteria are natural companions. Normal looking and tasting milk from a healthy cow can still be contaminated," he said.
Research supporting the health benefits of raw milk is limited. Proponents often cite a European study that suggests it may have protective effect against asthma and eczema in children. But the study authors note that other factors might be at play, including the farm environment, and concluded that the risk of pathogens in raw milk outweighs its potential benefits.
More than three years ago, Mary McGonigle Martin, 51, believed many of the claims she found on the Weston Price site. A health-conscious mother who ate organic, she bought some raw milk from a California health food store for her son Chris, then 7.
For two weeks Chris' chronic congestion eased, she said. But the third week he became violently ill; the milk had been contaminated with E. coli. Chris ultimately developed a serious complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome, marked by prolonged renal failure and pancreatitis. Though he has recovered, he may need a kidney transplant in the future and the entire family is still shaken, McGonigle Martin said.
"People can drink raw milk their whole life and not get sick," said the Marietta, Calif., mother, who tells her story on realrawmilkfacts.com, a site started by health professionals and researchers. "But the reality is that you don't know when a pathogen is in there. And it's promoted to children and infants, which I think is a crime.
"I support people's right to choose it," she added. "I would never condone it."