raw milk advocates speak out! read about recent raw milk hearings in Wisconsin in this article by rick barret of the journal sentinel
Eau Claire — Hundreds of raw milk advocates packed a legislative hearing Wednesday, demanding the right to buy and sell unpasteurized dairy products that some claim have powerful health benefits but that detractors call dangerous.
Bills in the state Legislature would allow consumers to buy raw milk and other dairy products directly from farms and exempt farmers from liability if someone becomes ill from pathogens in the milk.
Advocates say the dairy state’s handling of the issue will send an important signal to the rest of the country. With the exception of limited, incidental sales, state law prohibits the sale of unpasteurized milk to the public because it could carry bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses.
Raw milk advocates want the law changed, saying consumers should be able to decide whether the health benefits of drinking unpasteurized milk outweigh the risks.
“It is not the role of the state to protect people by eliminating all risks and intruding unnecessarily into their lives,” testified Margo Redmond, a raw milk consumer from Madison. “Please don’t protect me from myself, telling me what I can and cannot drink.”
Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection officials oppose allowing sales of raw milk to the general public, saying it could lead to outbreaks of food-borne illnesses with deadly consequences.
“Our job is to protect public health. We believe the law, the way it’s written now, does that as best as possible,” said Steve Ingham, administrator of the agency’s food safety division.
Since 2000, four outbreaks of illness due to Campylobacter infection have been linked to unpasteurized milk or unpasteurized dairy products. Those outbreaks sickened at least 131 people, according to the Wisconsin Division of Public Health.
Raw milk consumption also has been linked to sickness caused by Salmonella and E. coli bacteria. In 2001, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention traced a food-poisoning outbreak affecting 75 people to raw milk from a farm near Hayward. That farm has since gone out of business, according to state officials.
Hours of testimony
Wednesday’s hearing at Chippewa Valley Technical College attracted about 450 people – most of them raw milk supporters who arrived by the busload. Testimony began about 10 a.m. and continued for more than 10 hours. Speakers included farmers, consumers, scientists and state and federal officials.
What happens here will send a message to the rest of the nation, said Kimberly Hartke, spokeswoman for the Weston A. Price Foundation, which touts the benefits of raw milk and says the risk of illness from it is minimal.
Currently, about 25 states allow some form of raw milk sales.
“Wisconsin is a bellwether state for us,” Hartke said. Ted Beals, a retired pathologist from the University of Michigan, said raw milk sales should be allowed.
“There is a very large and expanding group of well-informed families that very much want to have their milk fresh, unprocessed and whole, and they prefer to get it from a farmer they know,” Beals said in an interview.
“It’s very personal,” he said. “I can’t think of another reason to get people more upset than to tell them that the food they believe is very nutritious and essential to their health is going to be denied them.”
Advocates say raw milk contains nutrients, enzymes and bacteria that boost the immune system and can prevent allergies. Some even say it helps control asthma or autism.
“I am not making claims that our milk is going to cure cancer or anything else. You only know what it’s going to do for you when you try it yourself,” said Janet Brunner, whose dairy farm in Pepin County sold raw milk for nearly 10 years until running into opposition from state regulators.
For dozens of small farms in the state, raw milk sales have been an economic elixir, and they have built a loyal customer base while avoiding prosecution.
The Brunners had more than 600 customers who paid about $5 a gallon for unpasteurized milk from their farm. When they stopped selling it, Janet Brunner said, the farm store’s income plummeted by 90%. “Now we are not earning enough to pay our bills, let alone support our farm,” she said.
Health officials worried
Public health officials and some farm groups paint a very different picture of raw milk. The unpasteurized product is inherently dangerous because it can harbor microorganisms that cause many diseases in humans, said James Kazmierczak, the state’s public health veterinarian at the Division of Public Health.
“Present technology cannot produce raw milk that can be assumed to be free of pathogens, regardless of whether cows appear to be healthy, clean or grass-fed. Only pasteurization, which kills over 99% of disease-causing organisms, can make milk safe for consumption,” Kazmierczak said.
The Wisconsin Public Health Association and Wisconsin Association of Local Health Departments and Boards have urged legislators not to legalize raw milk sales.
Many experts, including the federal Food and Drug Administration, say there are no health benefits from drinking raw milk that can’t be gained from drinking pasteurized milk.
The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation also opposes raw milk sales to consumers, saying that any illnesses would give the entire dairy industry a black eye and cause panic in the marketplace.
State regulators also say protecting raw milk producers from liability would set a dangerous precedent. “There isn’t a single food product whose processors have that right,” said the Agriculture Department’s Ingham.
At least 27 legislators have co-sponsored Assembly Bill 628 and Senate Bill 434, which would legalize raw milk, butter, buttermilk and cream sales from farms.
Lawmakers say the legislation is more about consumer choice, and helping farmers, than a debate on the merits of raw milk or pasteurization.
If the legislation fails, consumers will still find a way to get raw milk, even if it means breaking the law, said state Rep. Chris Danou (D-Trempealeau), a bill sponsor.