GROTON -- Deciding to take a go-slow approach to the question, the Board of Health asked proponents for patience as they delayed a vote on approving the sale of raw milk in town for at least another two weeks.
The vote followed a well-attended public hearing Monday as board members continued to gather information about safety issues dealing with the consumption of raw milk.
The matter was first raised by local farmer Helen Cahen, who raises goats and wished to sound out the board about its attitude toward the sale of raw milk in Groton.
The consumption of raw milk is controversial due to questions about safety, with advocates insisting that it is not harmful.
Raw milk is milk from a cow or goat that has not been treated through the pasteurization process.
Pasteurization was first introduced in the United States in the 1890s and because there was no way to discover which cows or goats carried bacteria, to be safe, all milk was ordered pasteurized. It's a practice that continues to the present with government health organizations recommending continued pasteurization.
However, a growing interest in natural foods has revived interest in raw milk, which some say includes healthy elements eliminated in pasteurization.
Research, however, appears to show little difference nutritionally. Many states such as Massachusetts and New Hampshire do allow the sale of raw milk.
For that reason, many in attendance found it difficult to understand the board's reluctance to allow its sale.
"I would like not to have to drive two hours to buy raw milk," said resident Charlene DeVinney, who, as did many others, travels to Goffstown, N.H., to buy the product. "I would like to keep my money in town. Please let us buy raw milk here."
"I think that the thing the Board of Health wants is to just have more control over raw milk," said resident Steve Lane. The state had its own regulations dealing with raw milk and the town should just leave it at that.
"We have a community here who wants raw milk," said local producer Cynthia Labbe. "I'm asking the board that if the state allows it, let us sell raw milk."
The hearing began with Cahen providing answers to concerns raised by board members at a previous hearing including those dealing with inspection, record keeping, the number of illnesses caused by raw milk in Massachusetts (none), and the number of dairies in the state providing raw milk (29).
Next, Cahen introduced health expert David Cumbert, who researched the issue of raw milk and wrote a number of books on the subject.
Cumbert opened by dismissing the claim that raw milk is unhealthy by asking why then have people consumed it throughout history? Millions of Americans, he said, consumed it every day without reported harm.
All foods make some people sick, continued Cumbert, noting that 32 people died from eating cantaloupes yet no one has ever suggested that the sale of cantaloupes be banned. In fact, there were three deaths reported in 2007 from consumption of pasteurized milk.
"There's a lot of fear mongering about raw milk," concluded Cumbert. "When you look at the macro data, it's not as scary as you think."
Resident Jean Nordin said she has raised her three children on raw milk with no negative side effects.
"Having it in Groton, having it nearby, is imperative in moving forward," said Nordin, adding that she was not necessarily asking the board to condone raw milk but to at least allow it by state regulation.
Chiropractor Robert Jackson testified to the healthiness of raw milk, which his family consumes on a regular basis.
"It's a healthy food in my opinion," said Jackson.
Resident Michael Higgins said consumption of raw milk is only part of a movement in which people are becoming more aware of their food choices.
Acknowledging the information proffered so far and the anecdotal evidence provided by those who attended the June 16 meeting, members of the board still expressed doubts about the data regarding the safety of raw milk.
Chairman Jason Weber stressed support for freedom of choice.
"But it's more tricky when adults are making the choice for minors," Weber qualified.
"I don't believe in the nanny state as well," agreed fellow board member Susan Horowitz before noting a number of federal agencies that have determined raw milk to be dangerous.
With suggestions of requiring warning labels and limited licensees, the board voted to continue the hearing until July 7 when more hard data is expected from Cumbert on the use of raw milk as opposed to anecdotal evidence.