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Raw Milk: Camels, the FDA, and State Deregulation

posted on Mon, Feb 13 2017 11:38 am by Mathew Swinburne

Currently, Desert Farms’ Facebook page advertises that the company sells “nature’s most wholesome dairy beverage,” raw camel milk, sourced from a network of Amish farms. However, until the end of last year, Desert Farms was claiming that their raw camel milk was more than just “wholesome.”

In September of 2016, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent the company a warning letter informing them that their marketing of raw camel milk’s alleged therapeutic value caused their product to be classified as a drug under federal law. The FDA cited Desert Farms’ numerous assertions that raw camel milk could be used to treat, mitigate or prevent health conditions including diabetes, autism, cancer, dementia, allergies and parasites. The FDA warned that raw camel milk was not generally recognized as safe or effective for the therapeutic uses the company put forth. The FDA also warned that if the company was going to continue to market their product as a drug they needed to get federal approval, which would require the company to provide scientific data demonstrating the safety and effectiveness of their product.

With the threat of legal action, product seizure and injunction, Desert Farms removed the therapeutic claims from their website and Facebook page. While Desert Farm’s raw camel milk may seem like a novelty, it is emblematic of the raw milk movement in the United States.

The movement to legalize the intrastate sale of raw milk continues despite the fact that the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn that its consumption is a health risk. Raw milk is associated with foodborne illness caused by pathogens including E. coli, Listeria, and Salmonella. In fact, while it is estimated that around three percent of the population consumes raw milk, 82 percent of reported foodborne disease outbreaks from dairy from 1973 to 2009 were caused from raw milk. As a result of this connection to foodborne illness, it is illegal to sell or transport raw milk in interstate commerce under federal law. However, states may choose to allow the sale of raw milk within their borders.

In the first month of 2017, five states, Alaska, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Montana and North Dakota, have already introduced raw milk legislation to allow or expand its sale within their borders.

  • Currently, the sale of raw milk is illegal in Alaska but herd sharing is permissible. Herd sharing is an arrangement where people jointly own a cow, goat or sheep and pay a farm to house their jointly owned animal. Owners of a “share” may then obtain raw milk from their animal without having to buy it. However, House Bill 46 would make the sale of raw milk to end consumers legal as long as the product’s label indicated that the milk was not pasteurized and “may cause health concerns.”
  • Hawaii currently prohibits the sale of raw milk. But  House Bill 257 would have allowed the sale of raw milk in retail establishments and the establishment of cow share programs.  However, at the end of January, the House Committee on Agriculture recommended that the bill be deferred.
  • Currently, Massachusetts allows farms to sell raw milk on-site. However, the Massachusetts Senate is considering Bill SD.1796 that would allow delivery of raw milk to end consumers. In addition, the bill would permit the creation of herd share programs for cows and goats.
  • In Montana the sale of raw milk is currently illegal.  However, the state is considering House Bill 325 that would create a small herd exemption that would allow the owners of “small herds” to sell raw milk from their farms directly to end consumers. A small herd is defined in the bill as “10 or fewer lactating cows, 20 or fewer lactating goats, or 20 or fewer lactating sheep.” While the proposed bill would allow certain raw milk sales it would also require that the small herd operations follow specific labeling and product testing requirements.
  • North Dakota currently prohibits the sale of raw milk but allows herd sharing. However, the North Dakota House of  Representatives is currently considering the North Dakota Food Freedom Act that would allow the sale of raw milk directly to the “informed end consumer.” The “informed end consumer” must be notified that the product is not “licensed, regulated, or inspected.” This bill also states that the consumer “assumes the inherent risks in the purchase, use, or ingestion of the food or food products purchased, whether those risks are known or unknown. . .”   

As the movement to deregulate raw milk sales at the state level continues, it perpetuates a drinker beware mentality. In response, public health practitioners need to educate their communities about the risks associated with consuming raw milk to help them make informed health choices.  The Network for Public Health Law will continue to monitor state regulation of raw milk and will provide public health practitioners with resources to address the health implications of this issue.

Want more information on food safety, law and public health? Contact the Network.

This post was prepared by Mathew Swinburne, J.D., Senior Staff Attorney, Network for Public Health Law – Eastern Region.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.

Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, RWJF.

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