Anonymous drop-offs, arrests and packages disguised as pet food -- it's the underground world of 'raw' milk, the latest health food craze sweeping the United States.
Marta, 29, is among thousands of Americans seeking out unpasteurized dairy products that enthusiasts say can cure everything from asthma to autism -- despite it being illegal in many states on the grounds that it is unsafe.
AdvertisementShe orders her produce from an Amish farmer in Pennsylvania and drives to a designated drop-off point in her home state of Virginia -- where raw milk sales are banned -- to pick up three gallons of milk, once a fortnight.
''We almost feel like we're drug traffickers when we're buying the milk. It's insane,'' said Marta, who withheld her last name to protect her supplier.
Despite rising global food costs that have left millions starving, US enthusiasts are willing to pay up to 20 dollars a gallon for this 'natural' alternative to processed milk.
Sally Fallon-Morell, president of advocacy group the Weston A. Price Foundation, estimates ''about half a million people'' consume unpasteurized dairy products in the United States, with ''explosive'' growth in recent years.
The US Food and Drug Administration is clear on the subject. In public advice it ''strongly advises against the consumption of raw milk,'' warning it ''may be unsafe'' however carefully it is produced.
Unpasteurized dairy products can carry pathogens including listeria monocytogenes, E.coli and salmonella, which pasteurization kills, it says. The FDA recorded more than ten outbreaks of illness caused by eating raw dairy products in 2005-2006.
But Fallon-Morell says many people no longer trust the government, instead preferring to listen to anecdotal evidence about raw milk's health benefits.
She also cites a recent study based on 15,000 European children that showed drinking farm milk may offer protection against asthma and allergy.
Marta used to be lactose intolerant and also suffered from colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease, for eight years. But she has felt no ill effects from the raw milk. Plus, she says, ''it tastes so good.''
''It's the bacteria, the enzymes that are there -- all those things that are missing from pasteurized dairy products,'' said Mark McAfee, a California farmer who sells 5.5 million dollars of raw dairy products each year in 325 stores.
He says raw milk can help clear up gastrointestinal problems and insists there are no health risks, as long as the cows and the equipment are kept clean, the animals fed on grass and the milk and manure regularly tested.
''Yes, raw milk killed a lot of people 100 years ago but that's not the raw milk we're talking about,'' McAfee, founder of Organic Pastures, told AFP.
Raw milk sales are legal in California and advocates estimate about 40,000 people consume it there. State authorities carry out monthly inspections and all products carry health warnings.
But it is illegal to export it to other states unless the product contains colostrum, produced from cows that have just given birth, when it is considered a dietary supplement and falls outside raw milk regulation, McAfee says.
Raw milk labeled as pet food is also exempt, but the authorities claim some people are buying it for themselves. McAfee has now stopped selling it interstate rather than risk prosecution, a possible year jail term and 100,000-dollar fine.
In some states, farmers can sell raw milk as part of cow-share agreements where customers buy a percentage of milk production for a fee. Elsewhere, dairy farmers need a permit, and breaking the law can have serious consequences.
Mark Nolt was arrested at his Pennsylvania farm in April and had about 25,000 dollars of equipment and food confiscated for selling raw dairy products without a permit. It followed a similarly costly raid last August.
The Mennonite Christian farmer had a permit, but let it expire as it did not allow him to sell yogurt or butter from raw milk.
The father-of-ten is now fighting the authorities in court, arguing that he has a constitutional right to carry out private business. In doing so, he has become a poster boy for the movement.
''Everything we sell here is raised on the farm and sold to the people putting it in their mouths. The state has absolutely no jurisdiction under that,'' Nolt told AFP, also refuting that his products made anybody ill.
One of his customers, Lyn Rales, is holding a fundraiser for Nolt at her home outside Washington, DC. She questioned why selling and buying raw milk had to be so hard.
''I don't see why I can't get milk that I like, and I'm an adult and I'm making a decision. It's not like he's hanging out on the corner saying this'll cure everything -- you have to make an effort to get it,'' she said.
But Chris Ryder, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, said the law was the law: ''We will continue to take action against Mr Nolt if he continues to sell raw milk illegally, and anyone else for that matter.''