The raw milk games are just getting underway in statehouses across America. Legislative sessions are annual opportunities to make changes in the crazy quilt that is raw milk regulation in this country, as the states all pursue their own unique courses when it comes to the sale of unpasteurized milk.
On one side are those who say anyone can drink raw milk – just buy a cow – while those on the other side push for full-blown, unrestricted retail sales for unpasteurized milk.
As in past years, there is no predicting when or where raw milk wars are going to break out. Indiana’s General Assembly this year has seen one of those unexpected skirmishes, where surprise definitely has had the advantage. Indiana Senate Bill 398 was drafted to be all about some changes in the duties and responsibilities of the state chemist. Then a 76-line amendment was proposed for SB 398.
With that language added to bill, a licensed milk producer with 20 or fewer cows would be allowed to sell raw milk without much additional regulation. The on-farm sales would have to be made under signs telling the public that “raw milk products are not pasteurized” and bottles will require “raw milk” labels.
But that’s about it. Indiana’s current law allows raw milk only to be sold as pet food. The amendment language was adopted and SB 398 is on the Indiana Senate’s second reading calendar, which means it could be brought to the floor for a final up or down vote whenever leaders want to bring it forward.
On-farm sales of unpasteurized milk are currently legal in 15 states. Another 10 states allow retail sales, just like pasteurized milk. Indiana senators who want to relax restrictions on raw milk spoke fondly of their own experiences with the beverage, mostly when they were growing up.
In New Jersey, where attempts to liberalize raw milk sales have been hung up since at least 2010, advocates are trying again. Consumers not involved with the current underworld of raw milk are getting exposed to it through some recent media reports. The Camden Courier Post, for example, paints a picture of cash being exchanged for illicit milk in a dimly lit garage. Orders are picked up in reusable bags, and driven away quickly in the night. The garage in question is a distribution center for raw milk produced in nearby Pennsylvania, where dairy farms have long provided the product to customers who come from the New Jersey side of the border.
New Jersey has one of the oldest bans on the sale and distribution of raw milk. Those prohibitions were put in place after raw milk was found responsible for massive outbreaks of foodborne illness early in the century. The New Jersey Assembly voted 71-6 last year to allow some commercial sales of raw milk.
But the Senate Economic Growth Committee sat on the bill, waiting until December to hold a hearing before allowing the measure to die. The measure was quickly reintroduced in the new Assembly session and assigned to the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. Now A-518, the New Jersey bill was approved by the committee on Friday. In testimony before the vote, those opposed to the bill criticized it for not requiring raw milk dairies to test for pathogens, and for potentially costing the state more to oversee the dairies and investigate outbreaks. Sponsor of the bill, Republican John DiMaio of Hackettstown, said he wasn’t worried about health concerns, and that the measure establishes the standards a licensee must maintain in order to get a permit and protect consumers.
In Wisconsin, where only a veto by former Gov. Jim Doyle prevented the commercial sale of raw milk after a liberalization bill passed the Legislature, a big date for advocates will be Feb. 22. That’s the day the newly formed Wisconsin Raw Milk Association is holding its lobbying day in Madison. The group is supporting Senate Bill 108, which would end most state regulations for licensed producers who opt to sell raw milk to the public. This bill hardly moved in 2011, but then again, not much moved in Madison last year that was not part of the budget and benefits battle between Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Democrats in the Legislature.
Spokesmen for Walker say the governor, who is currently fighting a union-backed recall, would likely sign a raw milk bill if it lands on his desk. While Doyle set up a task force that proposed recommendations for how raw milk might be safely produced and sold in the state, that legislative sponsors of SB 108 have largely ignored that work. In Kentucky, a bill to legitimize cow-share arrangements has been sent to the Senate floor.
Sharing ownership of a herd of cows to gain access to unpasteurized dairy products is not expressly prohibited in Kentucky, where Department of Public Health regulations ban the retail sale of milk that hasn’t been pasteurized. But the bill would clarify their legality. The measure is opposed by the Kentucky Dairy Development Council, which fears it would be a step closer to allowing raw milk sales with no regulatory oversight.
The dairy council acknowledges that some farmers want to sell raw milk because they can sell it at a premium, but cautions that all dairies get hurt whenever there’s an outbreak. It points to the recent outbreak of Campylobacter infection, linked to a Pennsylvania raw milk dairy, that has sickened at least 38 people in four states.
The bill is supported by Kentucky’s Community Farm Alliance. Indiana, New Jersey, Wisconsin and Kentucky will not be the only states that see raw milk action during legislative sessions this year.