Why does N.H. forbid raw milk ice cream but not raw milk yogurt? 

Monitor staff
Published: 8/17/2019 9:13:41 PM

For years, the question of how safe it is to consume raw milk has been a hot topic in New Hampshire. Last week, it suddenly got cold.

When a Pittsfield dairy-goat operation that had long been legally selling unpasteurized milk at its farmstand was suddenly cited by the state because it illegally sold ice cream made from that same milk, some people wondered what food-safety officials had against frozen dairy confections.  

The answer, it turns out, is: Nothing. Sort of. 

There’s certainly no extra health concern, said Colleen Smith, administrator of food protection section for the Department of Health and Human Services. 

“Just because a product is frozen, it wouldn’t present any differences in terms of food safety risks,” she said. 

The difference in legality seems to be the result of legislative inertia: Raw milk ice cream was never listed as being OK.

If that sounds sloppy, the situation is echoed in Massachusetts, which also says you can sell raw milk as well as cheese, yogurt and a fermented drink called kefir but doesn’t say you can sell raw milk ice cream. 

Things are different for our other neighbors. Vermont, New England’s dairy leader, is strict: It forbids selling not just ice cream but all products made from raw milk except the liquid itself. 

On the flip side of the picture is Maine, which allows anything made from raw milk to be sold, especially in communities that have passed special “food sovereignty” laws that exempt them from virtually all state regulation.

Even in Maine, however, raw milk ice cream appears rare. The only example this reporter could find doesn’t really count: Toddy Pond Farm in Monroe, Maine, sells ice cream sandwiches made from its unpasteurized cow’s milk but their recipe means it’s not really raw, said co-owner Heide Purinton-Brown.  

“We start with raw milk but in the process it’s boiled for 6 minutes,” she said. That is more than enough heat to count as pasteurization but the farm is not certified for pasteurized milk and so the ice cream cannot be advertised that way.

Either way, it is popular, said Purinton-Brown.  “On Friday night farm dinners, we sell 150 to 200 ice cream sandwiches.” They’d sell more, she added, but they don’t have the time to make it. “Demand is huge.”

The question of what to do with milk that hasn’t met federal pasteurization guidelines – heated to at least 145 degrees for half an hour or 160 degrees for 15 seconds in order to kill dangerous pathogens – has long been contentious, and not just in New Hampshire.

The problem is that milk is a favorite food of dangerous microbes like salmonella so it must be handled carefully, kept cold and not stored too long, to be safe. Until pasteurization was developed in the late 19th century – it is named after famous French biologist Louis Pasteur, one of its originators – tainted milk was a common source of disease and death. The heat treatment kills microbes and makes it much easier to keep milk safe for longer periods.

Public health officials frown on people drinking raw milk or raw milk products because of the risk of serious intestinal illness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association all strongly advise people not to drink it. The federal government banned the sale of raw milk and its products across state lines nearly three decades ago because on public health fears.

Raw milk fans say pasteurization is unnecessary because it is not too hard for modern farms to keep raw milk safely. They feel it harms the flavor and say it degrades milk’s nutritional value.

There has been a small but growing national movement for years to allow the sale of raw milk, which led to the current New Hampshire law being developed in 2012 allowing the sale of up to 20 gallons a day of milk, cheese, yogurt and kefir. But not ice cream.  

“When that law was enacted there was a group that was interested in broadening allowed products. They were interested in specific products, and ice cream just wasn’t one of them,” said Smith. “We had some inquiries over the years over whether it was allowed, but no legislative movement to add it to the list.”

The media attention around the crackdown at Little Red Hen Farm and Homestead may change that.

It’s possible that ice cream was left off the list because small dairies seldom make it.

This might be changing as New Hampshire dairies join other small farms in embracing the local-food movement: There are five dairies in the state now licensed to sell ice cream made from their milk, as long as it has met federal pasteurization guidelines.

Smith pointed out an extra public health concern associated with raw milk ice cream: Its appeal to youngsters. 

“Children would be likely to consume ice cream, and a majority of raw milk disease outbreaks are in children. They are more immuno-compromised than regular adults … more susceptible,” she said. 

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

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