When Wich Cream’s Brandon and Lauren Belk came up with their idea for an ice cream company more than two years ago, they dreamed of flavors like salted caramel or strawberry ylang-ylang, a Southeastern Asian plant, all made from locally sourced raw milk. “But we didn’t realize all the hoops we had to go through when we started,” says Lauren Belk.

But today, she and her husband are in business, making gourmet ice cream and ice cream sandwiches from milk sourced locally through longtime farmers Celeste and George Albers of Rosebank Plantation Farm and Green Grocer. Wich Cream's products are sold at events and farmers markets around the Charleston area.

The Belks’ surprise at the challenges associated with using raw milk is not uncommon. Thirty years after the federal government issued regulations and declarations against raw milk, debates over the product continue in South Carolina, one of 13 states where the retail sale and consumption of raw milk is entirely legal.

Despite being classified as a health risk by the scientific community, raw milk is considered a health tonic by its advocates, a group that includes some of the Lowcountry’s most respected farmers and chefs. For these culinary professionals, the milk’s flavor and their feelings about it are more significant than any potential threats.

Understanding raw milk

In the simplest terms, raw milk is milk from cows, sheep or goats that has not been pasteurized. In South Carolina, Department of Health and Environmental Control inspectors visit and inspect raw milk operations on a weekly basis to make sure that they’re adhering to the codes for safety and cleanliness. According to DHEC, there are 23 Grade A raw milk dairies in the state: 12 goat, 10 cow and 1 sheep.

Raw milk makes up only a relatively small segment of the milk market. Large-scale milk production is the standard in the U.S., where 86 percent of the milk comes from dairies with more than 100 cows, most still with herds confined for maximum milk volume. These industrial dairies are inspected less frequently than raw milk dairies: Under federal law, milk plants and receiving stations are inspected once every three months, for example.

Pasteurization is the safety net for these operations. Traditional pasteurization entails applying high heat to milk to kill pathogens. Then that milk is usually homogenized, meaning the fat is redistributed or removed in varying degrees. Sometimes at this stage, vitamins are added.

In the news

Although raw milk accounts for a tiny fraction of fluid consumption, more than half of the artisanal cheese produced in the U.S. is made with raw milk. That statistic came to the fore last month when the Food & Drug Administration reported a popular raw milk cheese made by New York’s Vulto Creamery tested positive for a particular strain of Listeria monocytogenes similar to the strain isolated from a cluster outbreak responsible for six illnesses and two confirmed deaths.

The cheese was sold along the East Coast, including locally at Artisan Meat Share, which pulled the cheese from its case and alerted customers to the recall with a handwritten sign. Restaurant representatives declined to comment for this article.

Carlos Yescas of the Oldways Cheese Coalition argued in The New York Times that raw milk wasn’t necessarily the culprit in the Vulto incident. Listeria “could originate from the wood boards used to age the cheese, the water supply or improper sanitation, like walking in dirty boots. It’s hard to pinpoint,” he said.

Indeed, producers that don’t have anything to do with dairy also have had to cope with foodborne illness in recent years. In The Atlantic’s 2016 review of nearly four decades of outbreaks reported to the Centers for Disease Control since the 1970s, leafy vegetables were responsible for more outbreaks than any other food type.

Still, the CDC remains concerned about the possibility of contaminated raw milk. According to federal statistics, over a 23-year period ending in 2010, there were 2,659 illnesses, three deaths, six stillbirths and two miscarriages attributed to raw milk.

So why bother with raw milk?

Despite the reports and warnings issued by traditional, respected organizations, many people still decide to drink raw milk. They question the validity and objectivity of the government’s conclusions, asserting that raw milk is in fact healthier and better-tasting than pasteurized milk. Furthermore, they claim that when raw milk is legal, regulated and properly tested, it amounts to an overall superior food product.

The Weston A. Price Foundation, a nutrition nonprofit which promotes the consumption of animal fats, states that “observational evidence suggests that raw milk may improve lactose tolerance, prevent the development of asthma and allergies, and may be more digestible than pasteurized milk for people who have difficulty digesting fat.”

A 2014 Stanford University study funded by the foundation showed pasteurization makes no difference in digestibility. “It's not that there was a trend toward a benefit from raw milk and our study wasn't big enough to capture it; it's that there was no hint of any benefit,” the lead researcher said in a release announcing the results. But a 2011 study of children in Germany, Austria and Sweden revealed raw milk “might contribute to the protective effect of farm life on childhood asthma and allergies.”

The organization also criticizes the pasteurization process for reducing the nutrients in milk. A scientific literature review published in 2011 by the Journal of Food Protection found there is a loss of vitamins B12 and E caused by pasteurization, although pasteurized milk has more vitamin A than unpasteurized milk.

Still, that’s enough of a loss to concern the Belks, who also saw raw milk as a way to keep their product local. But state law prohibits making ice cream from unpasteurized milk, so the couple worked with DHEC’s dairy manager to keep their ice cream base as close to its natural state as possible. Wich Cream decided to employ low-temperature pasteurization, which necessitated the purchase of a $4,500 small vat pasteurizer. The couple realized they wouldn’t quickly recoup their investment by selling ice cream sandwiches priced at $3, but they felt strongly about raw milk’s advantages.

Low-temp pasteurized milk also is available locally from Lowcountry Creamery, from which Brandon Belk sources his heavy cream. Belk, who came to love local ingredients while working at The Grocery, says using near-to-raw dairy just makes sense.

“It’s almost like listening to hi-fidelity stereo versus monotone,” he says of the difference. “The fat content is higher, and there is a naturally different flavoring: A depth that, as a cook, is really fun to play with.”

Lauren Belk adds, “We really care about a health and sustainability footprint, even when it comes to ice cream. If we couldn’t use this milk, we wouldn’t want to do this. It wouldn’t sit well with us. We want to move the needle when it comes to awareness of sustainable food systems, especially dairy.”

The Albers do know a thing or two about sustainability, having been respected farmers in the area for 25 years, at times producing vegetables, pigs, eggs and chicken. These days, the Albers milk 26 cows seven days a week for their Sea Island Jersey Raw Milk.

Milk production varies by season: Currently, they’re averaging 60 gallons a day, but yield will decrease by half in the fall and winter. The cows graze on 125 acres of pasture. George Albers milks in a mobile milk parlor, then brings the milk back to a milkhouse, where Celeste bottles and puts it on ice within minutes.

"We think it is important to keep the milk whole, as nature intended,” she says. “We do not heat it or destroy the fat through homogenization.”

Other Lowcountry producers also use the milk from Green Grocer. Greg Tatis, cheesemaker at Charleston Artisan Cheesehouse, says the reason they make cheese from the Albers’ milk “is because it’s a close-knit community. I know my source. I know her milk is examined every week, and it all comes down to safety. Raw milk cheeses can be a superior product.”

For the home consumer, the milk is sold by the half-gallon at nine outlets in the tri-county area, including from refrigerated cases at The Glass Onion restaurant on Savannah Highway.

“We’ve sold Celeste’s products since we opened, and when she started producing milk, we took it immediately,” says the restaurant’s executive chef, Chris Stewart. “I don’t feel that there is any problem with safety, or I wouldn’t carry it. I think it just tastes better without pasteurization. Some people come in with coolers and buy four half-gallons a week.”

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.