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During market season, Living Springs Ranch owner Dan West and his father, Ken, rise before dawn each Saturday, load up the trucks on their Iron County farm and haul their produce two hours north to St. Louis.
Armed with the organic eggs, chickens, pork and turkeys raised on their 380-acre Belleview spread, Dan sets up shop at one market, Ken at another. Last year they did a brisk business, thanks largely to one of their most popular commodities raw milk. Each week the Wests sold out their 50-gallon bounty, compliments of their three Jersey cows.
Living Springs is the region's sole purveyor of raw milk and serves a dedicated and discriminating clientele. "I've been doing this for less than a year, and it's amazing the amount of people who have come out," says 27-year-old Dan West, who works the GreenMarket in the Central West End.
All appeared to be going quite well for the father-and-son farmers until one Saturday morning in early December when West arrived at GreenMarket to set up his booth. He was greeted by Kathleen Schade, an inspector with the St. Louis Department of Health. She told West in no uncertain terms that he was violating a city ordinance by selling his raw milk, and she ordered him to stop.
West was taken aback. The state law, as he understood it, allowed him to sell raw milk directly to his customers.
The 34-year-old statute reads: "Only pasteurized graded fluid milk and fluid milk products shall be sold to the final consumer, or to restaurants, soda fountains, grocery stores or similar establishments; except an individual may purchase and have delivered to him for his own use raw milk or cream from a farm."
Because Living Springs produces its own raw milk, West figured he had every reason to consider himself legal. Besides, he never had any problems before.
Living Springs' milk, which is neither pasteurized nor homogenized, is the closest thing to drinking the juice straight from the udder. It's a rich white liquid with a couple of inches of cream collected on top, offered in large glass jars for $6 a gallon.
Supporters of the raw milk movement maintain that the pasteurization process destroys the milk by diminishing its vitamin content and killing off beneficial bacteria. Plus, they say, raw milk is delicious.
But Virginia Phillips, an environmental health supervisor for the City of St. Louis Department of Health, considers raw milk dangerous. Not only was West violating a city ordinance, Phillips says, but he was breaking a state law. "It's a safety issue," she adds. "Without pasteurization, there's a risk for food-borne illness, and so we let him know that it needed to stop under state law."
Phillips maintains that West interpreted the state law incorrectly. When she called the Missouri State Milk Board for clarification, she says, she was told while there is a law on the books allowing the sale of raw milk, "they have to be on the farm selling the milk."
"It says from a farm, not on a farm," counters West. "I'm not selling it to anyone else. I'm selling it direct."
Phillips says the law further stipulates that a farm selling raw milk first has to be inspected, and that farmers must obtain a state permit to merchandise the milk.
A mystified West says he's never heard of any such permit, and Phillips concedes that the state doesn't even offer one.
"There is no current permit in Missouri for any farm to sell raw milk," Phillips explains. "No farm has ever been inspected and permitted to sell raw milk, even directly to the consumer from the farm."
Nonsense, says Terry Long, executive director of the Missouri State Milk Board, which oversees the permitting process.
"He must apply to the state milk board and be inspected, have his plant set up at the farm, and then his milk must be continually tested after that. And that's the only way he can sell," the executive director says. Each year, he adds, only a handful of people apply for a raw milk permit, and most "drop out" when they realize the regulatory hurdles they must scale.
West maintains the law allows for an exemption from the permit process as long as he's selling directly to his customers. In recent weeks, he's worked out a compromise with the city health department that now gives him entry to GreenMarket as a pick-up point for customers who have prepaid for their milk. Most of his customers now simply buy milk from him outside the city health department's jurisdiction at Maplewood Farmer's Market.
GreenMarket director Julia Feder says the loss of West's milk will hurt the fledgling market, which in the winter is open the first and third Saturday of the month. "It's a real disappointment for the GreenMarket, because that has been a huge attraction to people," Feder laments. "Right now, there's no way around it. He cannot sell raw milk at the market."
Dan West, meanwhile, insists that he takes great precautions with his milk and regularly tests it for harmful bacteria. "The people at the health department think they're doing the citizens a justice, but I'd like to challenge them to do some research," he says. "Don't tell me raw milk is unsafe not if it's handled properly. Raw milk is the fasting-growing entity out there for any direct-sale organic market. It's huge, and it's growing."