Jeremy Foust wants to sell raw goat milk he produces at his farm in Eatonville at local farmers markets.
But the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department has prohibited Foust or anyone else from doing so, saying it isn’t a safe practice.
King County allows raw goat milk sales. Thurston County does not expressly forbid it.
Health officials in Pierce County, however, cracked down on Foust after an inspector saw one of his workers distributing samples last month at the Puyallup Farmers Market.
They are concerned about bacteria growing in raw milk that isn’t kept cold enough by ice. The biggest worry is people contracting E. coli, said Katie Lott, an environmental health specialist.
Foust’s run-in with health authorities comes at a time when raw dairy products are growing more popular as part of the organic, unprocessed and locally grown food movement.
Foust owns Left Foot Farm, a 25-acre family operation in the foothills of Mount Rainier, where he raises about 100 Nigerian Dwarf Dairy Goats. He says people buy raw goat milk instead of cow’s milk because it’s easier on the stomach. Those who are lactose-intolerant can drink it, he said.
He acknowledged the risk of consuming unpasteurized milk, in which bacteria haven’t been killed by heat. But some people believe it’s better to leave milk raw and unfiltered “as nature intended it to be,” he said.
“There is a desire for raw milk,” said Foust, 37. “That’s not going to go away.”
The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department says it has prohibited sales of raw milk at farmers markets for at least 10 years.
Foust is the first person during that time to attempt to sell it, the department says.
He maintains the unpasteurized milk is safe to sell when kept below 40 degrees on ice in portable coolers. When his workers sold the raw goat milk in Puyallup, they kept it below 40 degrees, Foust said. They tested an open bottle every hour to be sure, he said.
His workers were at the Puyallup market for two Saturdays last month, going undetected by health authorities. But on April 26, an inspector with the Health Department saw one of Foust’s employees handing out free samples of raw goat milk, after the farm’s booth had sold out. (Giving out samples of raw milk is prohibited in any retail setting.)
Lott emailed Foust on April 28 that the department doesn’t allow raw milk to be sold at farmers markets. Foust said he didn’t know until then that there are rules against it.
County health departments have the authority to prohibit the sale of items at farmers markets and other temporary events under the Washington State Retail Food Code, Lott said.
King County permits raw milk sales, and at least two farmers markets there have vendors who sell it, said Keith Seinfeld, a spokesman for Public Health — Seattle & King County.
Thurston County Public Health and Social Services doesn’t have a policy because no one has proposed selling it. If someone did, the agency likely would require it to be refrigerated, said Sammy Berg, supervisor for food and environmental services.
That still might not solve the problem of controlling the milk’s temperature, Berg said. “It would still require the operator to do everything correctly,” he said.
The state requires raw milk to be kept at 41 degrees or colder so bacteria don’t grow. The bottles must have a raw milk label or warning. A sign must be posted where the milk is sold, saying those who consume raw milk are at increased risk of food-borne illness.
Temperature control is one of the biggest concerns of the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. That’s why it has limited the sale of raw milk to outlets such as grocery stores and permitted farm stands, where the “refrigeration source is permanent and stable,” Lott said.
The Health Department is also concerned whether consumers are adequately warned at farmers markets where it’s more difficult to post a sign.
Foust has stopped selling raw goat milk in these settings. But he and his employees still showed up this week at farmers markets in Tacoma they had already signed up for and let people know they couldn’t offer their milk.
On April 26 in Puyallup, customers purchased about six gallons of raw goat milk from his booth, at $8 per half-gallon.
Foust failed to get a $45 permit to operate at the Puyallup market. The Health Department is fining him $90 for operating without a permit.
He still sells refrigerated raw goat milk at his farm store on 44th Avenue East in Eatonville, which is inspected by the state Department of Agriculture. Washington is one of 10 states that allow retail sales of raw milk.
He plans to talk more with the Health Department.
“I think there can be a solution that obviously works in other large counties and probably can work in this county as well,” he said.
Lott said the department is focused first on keeping consumers safe, but it’s willing to talk more with Foust about its policy.
“We don’t ever want to shut people out,” she said.