The Texas government has moved toward legalizing a controlled substance that made up a substantial black market throughout the state: raw milk. The Texas Department of State Health Services last month changed some rules governing raw milk sales in response to the growing farm-to-table movement, making it easier for urban residents to purchase it.

The most significant revision makes it legal for licensed farmers to deliver raw milk, said Judith McGeary of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, who led the change effort for more than 10 years.

In the past, San Antonio families wanting raw milk had two options. They could drive 23 miles southwest of downtown to Miller Farms in La Coste, the closest raw milk dairy, to pick up gallons on-site, or they could sign up with an illicit milk dealer who would buy in bulk and coordinate pickups and dropoffs in the city.

“The new rule takes a more common-sense approach, allowing the farmer and consumers to agree on delivering this healthy, legal food,” McGeary said.

In 2013, one delivery of about 100 gallons to one such dealer landed Miller Farms in real trouble. Acting on a complaint from a neighbor, the state investigated and fined Eddie Miller $5,000 and forced him to dump out 700 gallons of product. 

“When you tell folks about it, getting busted for selling milk, they think you’re lying. Pretty stupid,” he said. 

Miller Farms owner Eddie Miller poses for a portrait outside of his honor-system raw milk shop in La Coste, Texas.
Miller Farms owner Eddie Miller poses for a portrait outside of his honor-system raw milk shop. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

In addition to legalizing raw milk deliveries, the rule changes also allow for “herd shares.” A customer can pay for a portion of a season’s dairy output to the farmer beforehand and collect their dairy as it is harvested.

According to the CDC, raw milk can carry dangerous germs such as Listeria, E. coli, and Salmonella, which pose serious health risks. They argue that between 1993 and 2012, 144 hospitalizations were traced to raw milk in the United States.

Last year a study of over 2,000 milk samples from retail sites around the country found that harmful bacteria do grow much more quickly in raw milk than its pasteurized counterpart, but only if not properly refrigerated. If kept under 40 degrees (standard for most refrigerators), raw milk did not have any more active pathogens than pasteurized samples, the study found. 

For much of the world, raw milk is not such a radical proposition. In Europe, a huge portion of milk and cheese comes from unpasteurized dairy, with relatively low incidents of food-borne disease. Fifteen states outside of Texas even allow it to be sold in grocery stores. 

Advocates argue that there are health benefits that outweigh the risks.

“Raw milk has tons of enzymes that help your body to break down different foods,” said Rhianna Miller, who owns Mill-King dairy, based outside of Waco. Mill-King pasteurizes the bulk of what it distributes but does have raw milk to sell. “Lots of people who thought they were lactose intolerant find that raw milk is much easier to digest. It can also help naturally immunize you for allergens, which was really important for our family and is a big reason we started.”

Others argue that requiring pasteurization unfairly advantages industrial dairy operations that have access to the expensive equipment necessary, placing an unfair financial burden on small farmers. Others just think raw milk tastes better. 

Regardless, since minimizing health risks from raw milk depends on proper refrigeration, the underground market probably isn’t the best bet for food safety anyway. With the new rule changes, urban raw milk drinkers should soon have a legal way to get it, with improved accountability encouraging better temperature controls.

Rhianna Miller said, “We’re just so excited about the changes. We just want to get real milk to anyone who wants it.”

Dairy cows graze at Miller Farms in La Coste, southwest of San Antonio.
Dairy cows graze at Miller Farms in La Coste, southwest of San Antonio. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

It will take some months before deliveries become more commonplace for raw milk dairies, so in the meantime it can be picked up 24/7 from Miller Farms, at 12730 FM 471, La Coste. Customers pay in an envelope through the honor system. Mill-King at some point plans to deliver to dropoff spots in San Antonio that it will announce on its Facebook page. 

A list of additional raw milk retailers is available on the Texas Department of State Health Services’ website.

Mitch Hagney is a writer and hydroponic farmer in downtown San Antonio. Hagney is CEO of LocalSprout and president of the Food Policy Council of San Antonio.