There are still multiple endings that could be put on the raw-milk story told during the 2014 state legislative season.
One popular theory is that the foodies and libertarians have joined hands in a great coalition to pass bills to legalize unpasteurized milk across the land. These theorists point to 40 bills introduced in 23 statehouses during the current legislative season. Another possibility is that not all that much has changed in 2014 except for the fact that raw milk advocates are now more visibly split in their ranks on the direction their movement should take.
After Wisconsin’s “raw milk outlaw” Vernon Hershberger was found not guilty of operating without various licenses at the infamous Baraboo trial last year, his vocal opposition to GOP state Sen. Glenn Grothman’s bill to make licensed raw milk sales legal in Wisconsin became symbolic of the split.
All states are equal, but not when it comes to raw milk. Wisconsin is America’s dairy state, with around $30 billion of pasteurized milk sales. After Hershberger came out against Grothman’s bill for raw milk sales that involved some licensing and regulation, the bill went nowhere and is now officially dead.
Before the 2010 elections, the Wisconsin Legislature did make raw milk sales legal. However, Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed the bill and Grothman has since failed to get another raw milk bill passed.
And the fact is the 2014 legislative season is already over in 19 states that either do not usually meet in election years or that have already adjourned. Another seven states join that list in just a few days. Except for the half-dozen states with year-round legislative bodies, most of the rest are shut down by mid-May.
It is unlikely there will be any addition to the handful of states that permit raw milk to be sold at retail. The fights are mostly over regulatory tweaks and policies on farm sales and so-called cow-share schemes.
With raw milk bills like these going back and forth, the tightening versus liberalization battle is more like the trench warfare of World War 1. When every legislative season is over, there are usually some slight changes back and forth, but not much in the way of wholesale changes.
The two sides have their lines of debate down pat. Opponents tell how time and transportation of raw milk raise the risks that the harmful bacteria contained in unpasteurized milk pose real dangers to consumers, especially children. They have data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and horror stories on videotape told by raw milk victims and their grieving parents.
Advocates of raw milk talk about “food freedom” and do not lack for testimonials from folks who drank raw milk all their lives and offer theories about how pasteurization kills bacteria in milk, but also eliminates other content that fights everything from allergies to autism. They say consumers should have a choice and dairy farmers should have an option for selling raw milk in the public square.
In addition to occasionally appearing before criminal juries, raw milk advocates have also proven effective at playing defense. During the current legislative session, they turned out thousand of supporters in Illinois against a bill to ban the sale and distribution of raw milk. Illinois currently bans retail sales of raw milk, but allows farms to sell to the public.
State Rep. Daniel J. Burke (D-Chicago) opted not to even try to move the bill to ban the farm sales out of committee after raw milk advocates buried members with phone calls and emails opposing it. Burke said he was persuaded after receiving “thousands of communications” not to interfere with raw milk because so many people find it beneficial.
At the same time, opponents of raw milk just won a major battle in the unexpected state of California. Raw milk losing in California is unexpected because unpasteurized milk is legally sold at retail in the Golden State. Organic Pastures (OP) is the largest commercial raw milk dairy in the state, and its founder, Mark McAfee, is perhaps the country’s most effective raw milk advocate.
But Assembly Bill 2505, the “Home Dairy Farm” bill introduced by Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada (D-Davis) just went down in flames in Sacramento. AB 2505 would have given California consumers the option of buying “fresh-from-the udder” raw milk from small farms that would be exempt from standards such as those that apply to OP and other commercial raw milk dairies in the state.
But opponents quickly said the risks of such a scheme were greater than any benefit or “economic freedom.” Those who want fresh-from-the-udder milk do have that option in California, according to Assemblyman Brian Dahle (R-Bieber).
“If you want to drink unpasteurized milk, buy a cow, milk the cow and drink the milk,” he said. “We don’t like to get into what people do at home — that’s your business — but when you start selling it, that’s our business.”
AB 2505, which died in committee, was limited to home dairies with up to three lactating cows or 15 goats. It was opposed by a coalition of farm, dairy and health groups.
About a month from now, both sides will climb out of their trenches and see if there are any battle lines that need to be redrawn. After that, there will be another legislative season in 2015.© Food Safety News