EASTON — Every day at 4:30 a.m. and again 12 hours later, Eric and Holly Foster round up all 60 of their brown and white Jersey cows at Chapel’s Country Creamery in Easton to milk them.
Most of the milk goes to a tank, to be collected later by a co-op and pasteurized. The rest is used in the Fosters’ cheese and yogurt products, and a small portion of the milk is stored in their fridge to drink.
The raw milk, which is straight from a cow’s udder and unprocessed, is stored in a gallon-sized glass bottle. A layer of cream sits atop the milk, and requires a slight shake before drinking. The Fosters and their four children regularly drink the milk in their country-themed kitchen.
“I grew up on a dairy farm as a kid. We drank milk right out of our tank,” Eric Foster said.
The Fosters wonder what they would do if it were legal to sell this raw milk to Maryland consumers. It’s been illegal to do so since 2006.
Now, a bill that would make the sale of raw milk legal in Maryland is being considered in the state legislature.
The raw milk wouldn’t be sold in stores. Instead, a consumer would need to make an arrangement with a farmer and have some kind of financial investment in a cow or herd to obtain the raw milk, according to the bill.
“It boils down to this: an individual should be able to buy a cow and drink its milk,” said Del. Nic Kipke, R-Anne Arundel, who is co-sponsoring the bill.
“Personally, I’ve never drank raw milk, but there are thousands of Marylanders who do, and they are healthy and fine,” said Kipke.
Bill co-sponsor Del. James W. Hubbard, D-Prince George’s, said legalizing the sale of raw milk could economically benefit Maryland farmers.
Maryland is one of 20 states where the sale of all raw milk to humans is prohibited, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The remaining 30 states allow consumers to purchase raw milk, though how the milk is sold varies by state.
Of the 30 states that allow the sale of raw milk, 13 allow the sale of raw milk on the farm. If the bill passed, Maryland would become the 14th state to permit this.
In Maryland and other states that ban raw milk, dairy milk is required to be pasteurized, or heated at high temperatures for a short amount of time to kill bacteria. Because raw milk is unpasteurized, it can carry bacteria such as salmonella or E. coli that can cause gastrointestinal illness, such as kidney failure, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
The Maryland Health Department says raw milk is a high-risk food for all people, especially pregnant women, children and the elderly.
“Milk can easily become contaminated,” said Laurie Bucher, chief for Center for Milk and Dairy Product Safety of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Udders can become infected, distributing bacteria into the milk, Bucher said.
Between 1993 and 2006, 60 percent of reported dairy-related outbreaks were linked to raw milk, according to a study released by the Center for Disease Control in 2012.
Despite health concerns about raw milk, Hubbard said some consumers still prefer raw milk, prompting him to co-sponsor the legislation in Annapolis.
“They know what the FDA has said about raw milk,” said Hubbard. “I advocate for the bill for the restoration of consumer rights.”
Liz Reitzig, a raw milk advocate, said she drives from Bowie to Pennsylvania to buy raw milk for about $7 to $8 per gallon for her family.
It’s illegal to transport raw milk across state lines, but for Reitzig, the health benefits of raw milk are worth the risk.
“Based on my experience, I’ve seen my children thrive on it,” said Reitzig, a mother of five children, ages 2 to 11.
Proponents of drinking raw milk claim raw milk is more nutritious than pasteurized milk and that it is antimicrobial, according to the legislative analysis of the raw milk bill.
Eric Foster, the dairy farmer, believes it all depends on where and how the milk is produced. There would be a big difference between raw milk produced on a larger farm compared to a smaller farm, he said.
“I think that if it’s milk from a good farm, then I think people should have a choice,” said Foster.
On his farm, he can name all 60 of his cows, like Jewel and Wanda. They graze on grass for most of the year.
The Fosters already sell cheese made with aged raw milk, which was legalized in 2009. Their artisanal cheese helped boost their business, but they’re not entirely sure if they’d sell raw milk if it became legalized.
There are technical issues to consider, said Holly Foster, co-owner of the farm. The cows are milked by machines. The milk travels through pipes to a large tank. However, once the milk reaches the tank, the Fosters are not allowed to extract the milk.
The Fosters earn money in part based on how much milk they produce, so they’d have to determine how much milk they’d allot for raw milk customers.
Then there’s the issue of packaging. Should they allow the customer to bring their own bottles or should they provide their own glass bottles?
“I don’t know if I’d trust their bottles, for sanitary reasons,” Holly Foster said.
Still, the prospect of another means of income is tantalizing.
But Eric Foster also said he could understand the concerns of the dairy industry.
“The dairy industry is a big industry,” he said. “Dairy plants do not want to see raw milk get passed because of the possibility of mishandling. It can give milk a bad name.”