They operate in the shadows, skirting the law to exchange hard cash for the cool white liquid. What is the illicit substance that drives these seekers to such depths? The answer may surprise you: pure, unadulterated milk — not the kind that's advertised with dripping mustaches but the stuff that comes straight from the cow. You may not know it until you want some, but selling raw milk for human consumption is illegal in the state of Florida.

Purchasing raw milk is an underground system of trade, not dissimilar to scoring drugs. If such cloak-and-dagger drama sounds silly just to get a pint of wholesome moo juice, it is. But the situation is complicated by health issues, governmental regulation and the power of the dairy industry. The controversy is an old one, and most states are on the conservative tip, though some allow sales as long as there's a warning label stating that the product could contain organisms that are not healthy. That's Big Brother's beef: that raw milk is loaded with bacteria that can make people sick. On the other side of the argument, the health-conscious claim that raw milk is a far superior food to the processed kind, providing untold benefits including relief from allergies and lactose intolerance, more absorbable calcium and countless other positives. For more discussion of those health benefits, see The Untold Story of Milk by Ron Schmidt.

Currently, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services allows the sale of raw milk only for pet food, for which a seller must have a license. Thus, we won't discuss specific farms that produce raw milk out of respect for their privacy. (Find a national listing of raw milk providers at www.realmilk.org.) A farm in Live Oak, Fla., became high-profile in summer 2005 when government agents bearing weapons popped up on the property for an inspection. The farmer has been chastised and now has a pet food license, but the message was sent loud and clear to others like him, and the raw-milk trade has gone underground.

To understand why some consumers want their milk raw, know that it is a far different product than what is sold in those familiar jugs and cartons, and that includes so-called "organic" milk. Horizon, Stonyfield Farm and Organic Valley are all owned by corporations that raise cows in "organic" confinement dairies, but the milk is not raw. Wipe those images of rolling hills of grazed grass out of your mind when you consider how modern milk makes it to your fridge. Pooled from several dairies — often large factories — into refrigerated trucks, it is then driven long distances to sterile labs where it is tested, separated, heat-treated, reformulated, then bottled and put back on trucks to be distributed from Wal-Mart to Whole Foods. More than 70 percent of the milk Americans purchase is supplied by four multinational food corporations. Even our local creamery, T.G. Lee, is owned by food giant Dean Foods. In other words, milk is big business, even the stuff that's sold as "organic."

Steve Moreau, a 30-something man of Caribbean descent who lives and works in Central Florida, is a self-proclaimed "real milk activist." He goes out of his way to get milk from a small, local farm with a well-managed herd of 15 old-fashioned Jersey cows. One very important fact is that all the cows he gets milk from eat their native diet of grass. Within an hour of the cows being milked, Moreau is enjoying a fresh glass.

"I'll only drink milk if it's full fat, unprocessed and from grass-fed animals," Moreau says. "I avoid anything pasteurized, homogenized, or from a confinement dairy where they eat grain and graze in their own manure."

Raw milk does taste wonderful. It has the complexity of a good glass of wine, with rich mouth-feel and an intense sweetness that lingers on the tongue. And the risk of pathogens is unlikely, if you're careful about your sources. Rather than describe the essence of raw milk, here are the factors that make commercially sold milk such a different product.

Pasteurization: Ironically, Louis Pasteur, a French chemist, first theorized on the beneficial uses of milk's inherent bacteria. Later, he discovered that heat fends off those bacteria, but it wasn't until pathogenic species of bacteria were discovered in the milk supply that his theory gained popularity in the dairy industry. For most of history, people drank milk that was teeming with bacteria, but it was a good kind that allowed milk to pleasantly sour into products like yogurt, cheese and kefir, extending its shelf life. During the Industrial Revolution, however, dairy production took a terrible turn in poor urban areas, making pasteurization a necessity for public health, as milk carried many diseases.

What is pasteurization? It's the controlled heating of milk to a very high temperature for a specific amount of time. There are many different methods, but the most common is the High Temperature Short Time (HTST) method, which heats the milk to 165 degrees for 15 seconds, then rapidly cools it. The problem is that protein is denatured by the process, and all the enzymes are destroyed, including the ones that actually help digest milk.

Homogenization: Homogenization was invented to emulsify margarine. It was transferred to the dairy industry for one reason — less hassle on the part of dairy distributors. Milk naturally separates into two layers, with a rich layer of cream on top. Once pasteurization made it possible to transport milk for long distances, homogenization was a simple solution for ensuring a unified product. Even the whole milk we purchase today has been completely separated in the factory into cream and skim milk, then recombined. The product we buy as whole milk is a standardized 3.5 percent butterfat, which is completely homogenized into the product. (The rest of the cream is used for ice cream, whipping cream, etc.) Milk is a fat-in-water emulsion, and homogenization basically forces the fat molecules through hair-like pins, crushing them. What milk activists oppose about homogenization is the fact that it changes the structure of the fat molecule's cell membrane. Studies are not yet available that reveal how the body reacts to this man-made molecule.

Grass-fed versus grain-fed: Cows are ruminants, which means they have four chambers that supersede their stomachs. These chambers are designed to be holding tanks where their food is predigested with the help of beneficial bacteria. The rumen is a delicate part of the cow's inner ecology, and what the cow eats provides the pH for proper digestion and nutrient utilization. Grass and forage are their natural diets, which provides them with optimum nutrition. The management of most cows includes some grain, usually in the winter months when grass is not readily available. However, too much grain can totally destroy a healthy rumen (unless drugs are given). For factory-farmed cows, low-quality grains often make up the bulk of the diet. Some of the foods found in the diet of confinement-farm cows are soy hulls, No. 2 corn feed and even chicken manure — all industrial waste products.

When a cow is fed its natural diet, the milk contains a high amount of calcium and other minerals; also, grass-fed animals have been found to have a higher amount of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) — a good thing.

And when cows are grazing in the pasture and not standing around in their own manure, there is less chance of passing and harboring dangerous pathogens. E. coli, salmonella and campylobacter are not intrinsic to cow's milk. These pathogens are introduced by surrounding conditions. One California-certified raw dairy, Organic Pastures, has regularly tested its milk for the last four years, and not one human pathogen has been reported. Finally, we all know that pasture-feeding animals is better for the earth. Several websites, for instance www.westonaprice.org and www.eatwild.com, offer more information about the healthy traditions of raw milk.

"We can choose a lot of things out there," Moreau says with a grimace. (Think alcohol, cigarettes and Big Gulps.) "It's just a shame they pick on milk so often."

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