Heidi Hall, The Tennessean
A car pulls up to an East Nashville, Tenn., home as night begins to fall, its occupants hurrying up the front steps but never knocking on the door.
What they want is in coolers on the porch out front, paid for in advance.
But their purchase is not weapons or drugs. It's milk. Raw milk.
And as of nearly four years ago, it's perfectly legal to buy in Tennessee. A subterfuge in East Nashville and elsewhere, raw milk advocates say, is likely a holdover from when it wasn't.
They're seeing a surge of interest since the change. The Tennesseans for Raw Milk website listed 15 providers in 2009, when the law passed. Now there are 70. A food safety expert with the University of Tennessee Extension says she's getting more inquiries about raw milk at her office, plus hearing more about it from friends and colleagues.
Depending on who's talking, raw milk is either the elixir of the gods, easy to digest and packed with nutrients, or a dangerous potion that could be death-dealing to babies or elderly people.
Eleven states ban any sale of raw milk outright, according to the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund.
In Tennessee, it's legal only to purchase herd shares -- a situation in which multiple buyers own the same cows and the right to drink their milk -- or to buy raw milk labeled as pet food. It can't be sold in retail stores.
Tennessee Department of Health records show two raw milk infection incidents in the last five years, spokesman Woody McMillin said. In 2008, four people in Polk County were infected with campylobacter, which could have come from either raw milk they bought in Georgia or their own well water. In 2010, three people in Knox County got E. coli from raw milk collected on their own farm.
None went to the hospital, McMillin said.
But while Tennessee raw milk producers have little interaction with government over their businesses, a Minnesota producer and others have found themselves in court, even where state law protects some raw milk distribution.
"There are two food systems in this system: the industrial, conventional system and the local system," said Pete Kennedy, president of the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund. "Raw milk seems to be at the center of contention between the two systems."
The defense fund's hotline number is on a refrigerator magnet up in Brian Harville's milking shed, but he has never had to use it.
Harville owns 21 grass-fed Jerseys -- eight of them currently producing milk. They gobble up a treat of organic feed while producing two or three gallons twice a day.
While the Wilson County dairyman has farmed and auctioneered his whole life, the raw milk business found him, he said.
"The consumers begged us to do it," Harville said. "People found out we had a Jersey cow. One thing led to another, we found out about the cow-shares law, and we bought three more young heifers and hand-milked four Jersey cows the first year."
Harville understands the risks. He sterilizes the udders twice before milking and once after. Before the claw goes on, he hand-inspects each udder, drawing a little milk to check for any abnormalities. The gallons he collects go into a chiller to be cooled down, then bottled and distributed.
The milk stays fresh for a week and a half, while pasteurized milk stays fresh double that time, Tennesseans for Raw Milk President Shawn Dady said.
In addition to the money made selling shares, there's milk for the Harvilles themselves -- Brian's wife, Kayla, and their toddler and infant. The youngest, Kayla Harville said, went straight from the breast to raw milk.
But while the Harvilles are some of raw milk's biggest advocates, Brian Harville still has concerns about government interference. Even though what he does is perfectly legal, he said, "the USDA doesn't have to follow state law."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture referred questions to the Food and Drug Administration, which issued a statement saying states regulate the sale of raw milk.
State GOP Sen. Frank Niceley argued his raw milk bill for years before it gained traction. He couldn't understand why folks weren't allowed to purchase milk directly from small, local farms -- like they did when he was a kid.
"Then we had women bootlegging milk from one or two cows, and I thought, 'Why are we treating these salt-of-the-earth people like criminals?'" Niceley said. "You can eat raw oysters and raw fish."
There are good reasons not to consume raw milk, insists Faith Critzer, an assistant professor and food safety specialist with the University of Tennessee.
"We've been pasteurizing for so long, people have forgotten why we have pasteurization," she said.
In addition to campylobacter and E. coli, there's a risk of getting salmonella. From 1998-2009, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures show, 1,837 people were made ill by raw milk, nearly 200 went to the hospital and two died. There are countless other cases never documented, Critzer said.
Adults can decide what they want to consume, but she recommends against raw milk particularly for children, elderly people, pregnant women and people whose immune systems are compromised.
But some medical doctors support their patients who want to consume raw milk. Dr. Daniel Kalb, who practices in Franklin, said raw milk has more vitamins, including B6, and nutrients such as manganese and essential fatty acids. And while doctors don't know why it is, he said, some patients with asthma and allergies have seen improvement drinking raw milk -- he believes because pasteurization damages delicate proteins in the milk.
"When my patients ask me if it would be OK, I say absolutely," Kalb said. "I give the caveat: If you're sure of the source."