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Hearings bring back raw milk debate

Sept. 19, 2013 | 0 comments

MADISON

Opponents and supporters of a bill to legalize the sale of raw milk had two chances to make their voices heard in the past week, first with a hearing in Madison and then with another in La Crosse.

Senate Bill 236, and its companion in the Assembly, have re-ignited the debate on whether or not consumers should have the right to go to a farm and buy raw milk.

Currently Wisconsin allows only "incidental" sales of raw milk. About 30 states allow some form of transaction allowing consumers to purchase raw milk.

Supporters of the measure testified that consumers should be able to buy unpasteurized milk from farmers as a matter of personal liberty; that it is another way for smaller farms to sustain themselves financially; and that raw milk is a healthy food that they want for themselves and their families.

Some said it would be a way to legalize the sale of raw milk rather than continuing the "black market" that exists today.

Opponents testified that raw milk could be a threat to the state’s dairy industry if there is an outbreak of illness related to the unpasteurized product and that they have serious concerns about the safety of unpasteurized milk. (See related story on opposition from the Wisconsin Safe Milk Coalition.)

During testimony before the Senate Committee on Financial Institutions and Rural Issues, chaired by Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center) the bill’s author, Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend), said the sale of raw milk was originally brought to his attention four years ago.

At that time farmers had been selling unpasteurized milk off their farms under a variety of "cow-shares" and other plans when enforcement changed at the state level and many of the farmers began getting shut down.

In response to clamor for legalization of those sales, the Legislature passed a raw milk bill then, on a margin of 60-35 in the Assembly and 25-8 in the Senate. "Raw milk is a drink that’s consumed around the world. I was never aware it was a terribly risky thing," Grothman said.

That bill ended up being vetoed by then Gov. Jim Doyle after a coalition of dairy interests and health officials – the Wisconsin Safe Milk Coalition – came out against the measure and argued for the veto.

Grothman said he has had many proponents of raw milk come up and thank him for his support of raw milk as they believe it is a healthy drink.

There was a time when the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) promoted raw milk sales, and found a way to make it possible for farmers to make those sales as they did by allowing consumers to "own" a cow in the herd, he said.

But the attitude changed at the agency and some farmers selling raw milk found themselves at odds with DATCP regulators, Grothman said.

Some people want no regulation, he told the committee, but his bill would require that farms selling raw milk directly to consumers would meet Grade A standards and must sell it in clean jars with certain label requirements.

Grothman, and others who testified after him, noted that in 30 states the sale of raw milk is legal. In some places it’s sold in grocery stores.

Three-and-a-half years ago a raw milk bill passed easily, he said. "I don’t want to hurt Wisconsin’s dairy industry. I maintain that it’s safe and nothing bad is going to happen."

Grothman – and others later in the Madison hearing – noted that a well-known Wisconsin cheese factory in Waterloo recently experienced a disease outbreak from its pasteurized product that resulted in a death, a miscarriage and a number of other illnesses. "It’s a horrible tragedy and it was very well publicized but cheese makers tell me it hasn’t hurt their business. It did not affect the sale of Wisconsin cheese.

"If I want to eat a medium-rare hamburger, the beef industry doesn’t object."

Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma) was chair of the agriculture committee the last time the bill came through the state legislature. At a hearing on that bill there were 600 people, mostly in favor of raw milk sales, who testified.

She told the committee that she is a dairy farmer and has an education in public health and sees the passion on both sides of the issue. She encouraged them to look at an amendment that became part of that earlier raw milk bill.

"There is a middle ground. There is a way to thread the needle," Vinehout said.

The amendment arrived at middle ground on sales, testing, health protections, registration, liability, rulemaking and enforcement, she said, while giving consumers a choice and still protecting public health.

It gave dairy farmers the option to sell unpasteurized milk and minimized the risk to the state’s hard-earned reputation for high quality dairy products, she added.

 

FARMERS ON BOTH SIDES

Vincent Hunt of Coon Valley told the committee that he supported the bill as a point of personal freedom. "Gin, cigarettes and shotguns are legally for sale, but not raw milk."

Hunt said 11,000 people per year die in Wisconsin from ailments related to cigarette smoking. "Nobody died from drinking raw milk in 50 years," he added.

The argument that it could hurt the state’s important dairy industry is "bogus" to him. "In France and New Zealand the dairy industry is more important to their economy than it is here and raw milk is synonymous with dairy there."

As someone who has consumed raw milk all his life, he used government figures to estimate that three percent of the U.S. population is drinking raw milk. "If it was that dangerous people would be dropping right and left."

Hunt said there are 1.3 million illnesses each year from dairy products that are pasteurized. "I can’t imagine how raw milk could do more harm than that," he told senators with a chuckle.

He maintained that studies have shown raw milk to be beneficial to kids in reducing allergies and asthmas. "If you could bottle a pill and sell it at Walgreens, that would do that, mothers would buy it."

Shawn Pfaff, spokesman for the Wisconsin Safe Milk Coalition, said his members are concerned that there is a significant public health question in the consumption of raw milk and there is also concern about possible harm to the $26.5 billion Wisconsin dairy industry if there is ever a problem with raw milk.

"It has taken more than 100 years to build the state’s brand as America’s Dairyland. We know it’s a very emotional issue for proponents. There’s just as much emotion on the side of opponents.

"We think it’s impossible to make an unsafe food safe without pasteurization. We want people to drink fresh, nutritious milk as long as its is pasteurized," Pfaff told the committee.

When asked if his group could find room for a compromise, Pfaff told senators that "we want to sound as reasonable as possible but with the science we just can’t. We don’t see room to compromise."

Rep. Chris Danou (D-Trempealeau) testified that his first exposure to the issue was on his first run for Assembly when he met a farmer who had about 100 cows and a business model to sell raw milk to consumers. "It was a way for them to generate a retail price for their product

"This is exactly the thing we need to do more of in Wisconsin," Danou said, adding that without some kind of state law "we have an unregulated black market."

Public health officials don’t like sushi places or even potluck dinners, he said. His Assembly predecessor, Barbara Gronemus, he added, had to introduce a bill to protect potluck dinners.

Chris Pollack, representing the Wisconsin Farm Bureau, runs a 150-cow dairy with his parents and encouraged lawmakers to oppose the bill. "Many consumers lack basic information and understanding of the dairy industry," he said, and could easily confuse a raw milk outbreak with all milk.

Consumers will shun milk as they shunned pork after the "swine flu" outbreak a few years ago, he said. "Why should we legalize a product I won’t feed to my calves?"

Pollack, and other farmers, testified that they use pasteurizers on their farms to prepare cows’ milk for feeding to baby calves.

Dairy farmer and recent cause celebre’ of the food freedom movement Vernon Hershberger said he was mostly against the raw milk bill, but partly for it. In a recent prosecution of his farm, a jury found Hershberger not guilty on three of four counts related to selling food without permits.

"The jury said they didn’t want tax money to go for regulating raw milk sales," he told the committee.

 

PEOPLE WANT CHOICE

Rep. Dave Murphy (R-Greenville) is the author of the companion raw milk bill in the Assembly – AB 287.

He grew up on a dairy farm in Grand Chute and told the committee that it’s important for the state to create this niche for farmers who want to sell milk directly to consumers so they can compete against farms with "thousands and thousands of cows.

"There are a growing number of people who want to be able to choose where they buy their food. This gives us a commonsense framework," he said.

Mark Kastel, senior policy analyst with the Cornucopia Institute, said his organization is "neutral" on the health attributes of consuming raw milk, but said that just like with Prohibition in the 1920s, the state is wasting a tremendous amount of tax money "in a dragnet attempting to ensnare family-scale farmers."

The Hershberger case is just one of many in the last five years that state prosecutors have brought against farmers who are "acting as astute entrepreneurs in creating a product to meet consumer demand," he told the committee.

Kastel said an emerging body of scientific study points to the ways that microbes in the body contribute to our overall health.

Calling the raw milk debate one of "raw corporate lobby power versus individual rights" Kastel said the state has pumped money into the development of dairy CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations).

Raw milk for sale should be clearly labeled and consumers should have the right to make informed decisions, he said.

Enforcement against raw milk is selective, he said, as products like diet soda with its non-calorie sweeteners have been implicated in certain health problems, yet there’s no enforcement threatened against them.

Brian Wickert of the Wisconsin Raw Milk Coalition said he favored the sale of raw milk directly from the farm to the consumer as outlined in the bill.

He also testified that he filed a Freedom of Information Act request and learned that Sauk County had spent $28,800 in labor on sheriff’s deputies to cover the Hershberger trial.

Max Kane, founder of farmmatch.com, a website to put together farmers and consumers, said a poll of 8,500 consumers last year showed that 43 percent wanted raw dairy products. Of that group 97 percent wanted milk.

"We’re not talking about mothers walking through grocery stores (and buying raw milk.) We’re talking about people making a conscious decision to drive out to the farm and buy raw milk."

Kane said he was diagnosed with Krohn’s disease at the age of 10 and was basically unable to consume pasteurized milk from that point on. Since he began drinking raw milk he is healthier and able to enjoy dairy again, he said.

"The state needs some kind of bill," he said. "It’s kind of like the civil rights movement. It’s about not making us criminals for seeking a food we want."

 

OPPOSITE MEDICAL VIEW

Dr. Mark Kamsler, MD, a board-certified pediatrician from Delafield, testified in favor of the bill at the Madison hearing. He said that raw milk is a topic of extremes, with one side saying it cures all illnesses and the other side saying it’s all bad.

"The reality is somewhere in between. I take care of a lot of children and I really think there’s a place for raw milk - a place for people to make decisions for themselves."

While consuming raw milk is not a "no-risk" proposition, he said the "vast majority of people who drink raw milk will be fine." There may be a few who get a mild illness and there could be some who become seriously ill.

"But those cases are extremely rare and deaths are even more rare."

As a public health concern obesity’s morbidity and mortality are a bigger epidemic and "nobody’s talking about banning fast food."

Kamsler said allergists and immunologists are beginning to recognize some benefits from exposure to farm animals and raw milk. He encouraged lawmakers not to overdo regulation.

"The family farmer with a connection to his customers, to his animals and to his land is very unlikely to do anything that’s going to hurt them."

Paul Drifmier, who operates a non-profit organization with a food sovereignty mission, told senators that "it isn’t about whether or not there’s risk. It’s about food sovereignty and the right of individuals to have the kind of food they choose."

 

DAIRY INDUSTRY

Brad Legreid, with the Wisconsin Dairy Products Association, testified that "you just cannot make an unsafe product safe" and that an outbreak would bring "economic fallout" on the state’s dairy industry.

"Why would the legislature want to play around with the state’s number-one industry?"

John Umhoefer, with the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, asked lawmakers why the measure would remove licensing requirements for raw milk farms and why they didn’t enact specifications for those farms.

The bill, he said, mentions testing but doesn’t say who would do it. When asked by senators if the organization could conceive of a compromise on the measure Umhoefer said there is "no compromise available" from his members.

Scott Karel, a government relations associate with the Wisconsin Farmers Union, said his group was in favor of the bill.

Because it stipulates that the transaction would be between a farmer and a consumer, on the farm, and the raw milk would be labeled, it meets the criteria set by WFU members.

"The best part of the bill is the interaction between farmers and consumers."

The concerns brought by others who testified, are "overblown," he added and questioned why the state feels it is safe for the state’s dairy farm families to consume raw milk if they want to, but not allow other consumers to do so.

Dr. Nate Dorshorst, DVM, told lawmakers that he grew up on a small dairy farm and doesn’t feel the old adage of "we all grew up drinking raw milk" serves this discussion very well.

"It’s also not about small or large dairies. I see them all," said the bovine practitioner. "There is no appropriate, quick screening test to show that raw milk is safe."

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