Raw milk, for its proponents, brings images of grandpa’s idyllic farm – Bessie being milked as the cats meow around her legs. For the FDA and state and local health officials, raw milk brings up a different image: people sickened – mainly children – sickened by E. coli O157:H7, Campylobacter, Listeria or Salmonella.

For me personally, raw milk generates mixed images. Growing up on a farm, milking cows and consuming raw milk in the 1970s is one image. Thirty plus years later, however, my mind is drawn to images of children sickened by drinking raw milk. These children were sickened by bugs that we did not know existed in the 1970s. Each and every one of the parents who bought or served the raw milk thought that they were doing something good for their child. They believed that the “organic,” “natural,” “fresh,” and “raw,” nature of raw milk meant that it had properties that would be good for their child, not bring them to death’s door.

Presently, raw milk cannot be sold across state lines for human consumption. However, there have been multiple instances where raw milk producers have violated the law directly or have sold the milk as animal food knowing that humans were likely consuming it.

In-state raw milk sales are limited to about a dozen states, with most states limiting raw milk sales to direct farmer to consumer transactions. Many of the states that allow these direct sales are quick to point out the exceedingly low price of pasteurized milk, touting the high price a farmer can get for raw milk as a method of “helping the small, family farmer” – a laudable goal I might add. This goal, however, is not without risks to the consumer.

Over the past several years, I have represented several families of children whose parents purchased raw milk directly from the farmer. The children came away with E. coli O157:H7 bacteria-mediated Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, months of hospitalization, hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical expenses, and millions of dollars in risk of future complications – including end stage renal disease and the need for multiple kidney transplants.

Some states allow “cow-shares” or, as I call them, “cow condos.” This is where non-farmers “buy” a portion of the cow (and its milk) and attempt to get around any law banning the sale of raw milk. Again, states rationalize allowing this ownership fiction as another way of supporting the cost of maintaining the “small, family farmer” – also, a laudable goal.

I currently represent a woman in California who “purchased” raw milk as part of a “cow-share” – albeit, an illegal one. The milk she consumed was contaminated with Campylobacter and she subsequently developed Guillain-Barre Syndrome. She was hospitalized for months, much of the while dependent on a ventilator. She is now, in essence, a quadriplegic. Her past medical bills are nearly one million dollars. Her cost of future care is in the tens of millions of dollars.

There are also a handful of states that allow retail (grocery store) sales of raw milk and raw milk products. This is capitalism at its finest. Raw milk in retail sells for about eighteen dollars per gallon. Organic pasteurized milk sells for less than half of that. Farmers want to sell their raw milk to a larger market as efficiently as possible and there is demand from consumers who would rather shop at their favorite market than drive to the farm or own a “condo cow.” In short, selling raw milk in a retail setting is the raw milk farmer’s Holy Grail. Even retailers love it, seeing as how it creates a consumer draw and has a nice mark-up.

I have represented (and still represent) victims of E. coli O157:H7 cases linked to raw milk purchased (some illegally) in retail settings. In Missouri, one consumer purchased raw goat milk that was being sold illegally – the consumer did not know that the sale was illegal. This sale led to the consumer’s child suffering severe Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, being hospitalized for a month, and spending weeks on dialysis to save his life. He now faces a lifetime of risks that may likely cost millions of dollars.

In California, E. coli O157:H7-tainted raw milk sold in small “health food” retail outlets sickened several children. Two children developed severe Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome. Both spent over a month in the hospital, both on dialysis and one on a ventilator. Medical bills were nearly one million dollars. One child may require a kidney transplant – the other surely ill. The future costs to these children may well be several million dollars. 

Now for the risky part. Most, if not all, raw milk farmers have limited insurance and very few assets that are not owned solely by the bank. If they face litigation for poisoning a customer, bankruptcy is always an option and what insurance is available is paid.

But, what about the risk to the retailer? True, in selling raw milk they are “only” selling a product that has a history of sickening consumers – they did not manufacture it. So, is a retailer liable for paying millions of dollars to its customers if they are sickened by raw milk? The short answer is – Hell yes!

The reality in most states is that the entire “chain of distribution,” whether you are a manufacturer (a farm is) or retailer, is responsible if a product (raw milk is a product) causes harm. That means the farmer, the shipper, and the retailer will be responsible (morally and legally) to the consumer for all damages caused by the product. It is true that, depending on the state, a court may apportion damages between various members of the “chain.” However, and this is key, if the original manufacturer (the farmer in this instance) is bankrupt or has limited assets (including insurance), the retailer may be left “holding the bag” – partially empty – that the retailer will need to fill.

By way of example – assume that raw milk sold at a retailer sickens five people. Two develop Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome. Assume further that the farm has only one million dollars in insurance and limited assets. Also assume that the total value of all cases (settlement or verdict) is ten million dollars. Guess who pays the nine?

So, why would a retailer sell raw milk? Perhaps eighteen dollars a gallon?