A mother from Jackson County, West Virginia says a state law is putting her daughter's health at risk. Lori Lee says her daughter Rylee is allergic to the pasteurized milk in stores. But to buy raw milk in the Mountain State is a crime. West Virginia has some of the strictest milk laws in the country.
A country girl who loves her bevy of pets, 11-year-old Rylee Lee isn't shy about sharing her opinion on a very controversial topic. Lori Lee said Rylee is allergic to Beta Casein A1. It is a protein found in most cow's milk. So Lori wants to purchase raw goats milk for Rylee to drink. But in West Virginia it is illegal to sell raw milk. Anyone caught selling raw milk could be charged with a misdemeanor and face hundreds of dollars in fines.
"It is milk. It is not like it is a big war or nuclear bomb, it is milk," said Rylee Lee regarding West Virginia's stance on raw milk. "It is crazy."
West Virginia is one of only a few states in the country where raw milk sales are entirely illegal. The law applies to both goat's milk and cow's milk.
"The bottom line is she hurts when she gets milk from the store," Lori Lee said. "That is all the government is willing to give us. So what they give us hurts my child."
Brad Cochran is the Director of the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources' Public Health Sanitation Division. "On a public health side, raw milk is unsafe to drink," he said. "A home owner who owns their own cow and their family can currently drink raw milk should they desire. They just can't offer it to anyone else in West Virginia."
The milk purchased at grocery stores in West Virginia, even products labeled "organic" has been pasteurized. That means the milk has been heated to a specific temperature to destroy bacteria. But some small farmers say that isn't necessarily a good thing.
"It is really scary to me because you don't know what you are drinking. We know what we put in," said Melissa Lewis. She and her husband own a farm in Red House, WV in Putnam County. They moved to the farm to raise their five kids. They wanted to live entirely off of the land. One step to that process was switching to fresh, raw milk from their own dairy cows. Lewis also makes butter, yogurt and cheese for her family.
"I mean look at all of the wormers and all of the steroids and all of the hormones, everything that is in commercially processed milk and not including what they do to process and pasteurize it," Lewis said. "You are putting more harm in your body than getting it straight from a cow."
But according to the United States Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, drinking raw milk could kill you. The FDA prohibits the interstate shipment of raw milk from state to state.
"I mean even the states that have regulated raw milk outbreaks still occur in those states," Cochran said. When asked if outbreaks ever occur from pasteurized milk he said, "It is rare but it has happened. Most of the time it is not due to the pasteurization process."
At Stephanie Pauley's farm in Franklin Furnace, Ohio the milk her family drinks doesn't come from the store either. It comes fresh daily from their goats.
"This one is this morning and this one is last night," Pauley explained showing containers of raw milk from her refrigerator. She and her family moved from Huntington, WV to Ohio partially because in Ohio it is legal to access milk through herd shares. People can buy into the herd and legally get the milk.
Ann Boyce is a nurse who lives in Huntington. Her husband and some of her children have reflux issues, immune system problems, allergies and asthma. She researched raw milk and decided it was something she wanted to offer to her family. But in order to access raw milk in West Virginia, she had to buy a herd of goats and milk them herself. She said she spent thousands of dollars on fencing, supplies and to purchase the goat herd.
"We did everything the doctors would tell us to do. I appreciate the medical field so much, I am a nurse. I believe in it. But I think we should also pursue knowledge on our own and so I did," Boyce said.
Some small farmers say the fact that they cannot sell the milk they get from their cows hurts their bottom line. Mike and Maria Moles have a farm in Bomont, WV.
"We ignorantly thought that we could sell our extra milk," said Maria Moles.
The couple has two adult dairy cows.
"Do I dump the milk," Maria Moles asked. "Do I stop using the milk from my cows? What do I do?"
Their cows produce several gallons of milk every day. It is much more than the family can drink. So they bring orphaned cows, from other farms, to their farm so that they can feed them the extra milk. In West Virginia it is illegal for the Moles family to give or sell their milk to people needing it to raise orphaned animals. The only way for them to legally feed it to the calves is to bring them to the farm. They estimate they miss out on $20,000 annually because they can't sell the milk.
"Cows are dirty animals," said Cochran, with the WVDHHR. "There is no way around that. Just because you have taken care of the milk on your property and have only one or two cows in your possession and milk your own, that doesn't exclude the fact that there is bacteria in the milk."
Cochran said the laws addressing raw milk sales in West Virginia are likely to stay the same, despite efforts by some parents and farmers to fight for change.
"That is the only way to ensure the public health and safety from raw milk is to keep our ordinances and regulations in place," Cochran said.
But Rylee Lee said she isn't buying the argument, that raw milk is dangerous.
"They say it has bad stuff in it and unless you strip everything it is going to kill you. But I am still alive," she said.
Rylee and her mom said they will keep fighting.
"You know other parents have access to this. That is not right. We should have the same rights and freedoms in West Virginia that our neighbors do," said Lori Lee. "The government needs to trust us as parents to read the studies and extract our own opinions and beliefs. But the proof is in the pudding and I see the difference in Rylee."
According to a local representative of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a group that advocates for raw milk access, West Virginia is the only state in the country that has a law specifically banning not just the sale of raw milk but also the practice of herd sharing. Other states either have no laws addressing the practice of herd sharing or have laws allowing herd shares.
To find out more about all sides of the issue follow the links provided.