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Legality of ‘cow sharing’ examined

E. coli cases draw attention to raw-milk purchase, distribution

Oregon agriculture officials do not know how many dairy farms in the state are engaged in “cow sharing,” a practice associated with an E. coli outbreak that has sickened 12 children and four adults in the state of Washington.

The officials are trying to determine the legality of the practice, in which people who want unpasteurized milk buy shares of a cow on an unlicensed farm, entitling them to a portion of its raw milk.

State law permits people to obtain unpasteurized milk from unlicensed dairy farms that have three or fewer cows. Such small dairy farms do not have to be licensed by the Oregon Department of Agriculture, but they are not supposed to advertise or sell milk to anyone who does not physically pick it up, said Ron McKay, administrator of food safety for the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

“Right now, we are not entirely clear on what the law or regulations allow,” McKay said.

According to McKay, department officials have asked the Oregon Department of Justice whether state laws and department rules permit cow sharing.

“Current regulations may prohibit it (cow sharing), but we’re not sure and have asked the Oregon Department of Justice for guidance,” McKay said.

In the meantime, department officials are taking steps to prevent at least one licensed dairy farm in California from selling unpasteurized milk in Oregon. According to McKay, they have sent a letter to Organic Pastures, a dairy in Kerman, asking that it stop selling milk though Whole Foods Market stores here. The grocery labels the milk for pets only, a practice McKay said is prohibited.

Contacted by the Portland Tribune, Whole Foods spokeswoman Ashley Hawkins said the company believed the practice complied with state law and regulations.

“We are not aware of any prohibition of the sale of raw milk as pet food. If this changes, we will comply accordingly with the law,” Hawkins said.

Under state law, all milk sold to the public must be pasteurized, a heating process that kills potential dangerous bacteria, including E. coli. Some people want to drink raw milk, however, arguing that it is healthier than pasteurized milk.

“Raw milk is very nutritious, but once you heat it up, you change it,” said Joyce Young, a naturopathic physician who lives in Colton.

Young is a member of the local chapter of the Weston A. Price Foundation, an international organization frequently cited for the growing interest in cow sharing.

It was legal to sell raw milk in Oregon until the 1999 Oregon Legislature changed the law to require pasteurization at the request of the state dairy industry, McKay said.

“Pasteurized milk is safe for people, and that’s what we believe people should consume,” said Jim Krahn, executive director of the Oregon Dairy Farms Association.

McKay said he agrees with the requirement because it prevents the spread of numerous diseases such as E. coli, which can come from a variety of sources, including fecal matter from cows.

“There are a number of way for dangerous bacteria to get into milk, and pasteurization kills all of them,” McKay said.

Young believes that raw milk is safe if properly handled, however.

“There might be some inspections that would be helpful, but pasteurizing milk is not a good thing,” Young said.

In the Washington case, the only common link between the E. coli victims is the consumption of raw milk from Dee Creek Farm in Woodland, Wash. The family-owned farm, which produces and sells a variety of products, was featured in a Portland Tribune story in July on cow sharing.

On Thursday a Cowlitz County Superior Court judge ordered the dairy to identify the people who received its raw milk to Washington state health authorities.

The farm did not return calls from the Portland Tribune for comment.

Washington law allows the sale of raw milk if the dairy farm is licensed and the milk is labeled as potentially dangerous. The Dee Creek Farm was not licensed to sell raw milk.

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