“Explosive growth.” That’s how Washington state’s Agriculture Department describes what’s been happening in the raw-milk industry in the past 10 years.
The numbers say it all. There were only six raw-milk dairies in the state in 2006. There are now 39 — more than double the number in 2013 when there were 18. All are Grade A licensed dairies, which means their milk must meet the same food-safety standards as milk from conventional dairies. State officials say the number of raw-milk dairies will likely continue to climb.
Raw milk is milk that hasn’t been pasteurized. When milk is pasteurized, it is heated to a high enough temperature to kill disease-causing bacteria such as E. coli , Salmonella and listeria. Health officials warn that children are especially vulnerable to pathogens in raw milk, primarily because their immune systems are still developing.
State law in Washington requires that all retail raw milk products carry a warning label that states:
“WARNING: This product has not been pasteurized and may contain harmful bacteria. Pregnant women, children, the elderly and persons with lowered resistance to disease have the highest risk of harm from use of this product.”
Despite numerous outbreaks and recalls of raw milk across the country and warnings from federal and state agencies about the potential dangers associated with drinking raw milk, demand is strong. And continues to grow.
A passionate lot, raw-milk advocates have a range of reasons for avoiding pasteurized milk. Many say they can drink raw milk without experiencing allergic reactions such as bloating and other digestive discomforts.
Others like that it often comes from family farms, in contrast to what they refer to as “factory farms.” Still others laud it for its power to cure ailments ranging from arthritis to cancer — claims that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says are anecdotal and not based on science. And, most raw-milk consumers say that it just plain tastes better.
“The real deal” is a popular rallying cry in raw-milk circles.
“The cat’s been let out of the bag, and no one’s going to be able to put it back in,” said Jim Sinnema, owner the Old Silvana Creamery north of Seattle, referring to the growing popularity of raw milk.
WHAT’S OK AND WHAT’S NOT OK
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration bans the interstate sale or distribution of raw milk. In other words, raw milk produced in one state cannot be sold in another state. The U.S. Pasteurized Milk Ordinance requires that milk sold across state lines be pasteurized and meet the standards of the ordinance.
A dozen states currently allow raw milk sales at retail outlets. Among them are California, Idaho and Pennsylvania. However, the milk has to meet certain standards, usually Grade A standards. Sixteen states ban raw milk altogether.
With Washington state’s requirement that raw-milk dairies be licensed as Grade A, the operations must be inspected and have their milk tested on a regular basis.
It’s a practical way for dealing with reality. If raw-milk sales are illegal, say many public health officials, consumers will seek it out anyway, putting themselves and their families at risk.
HOW MUCH DOES SAFETY COST AND WHO PAYS?
Here’s the rub — raw milk requires more tests than conventional milk. Yong Liu, manager of the microbiology lab at Washington state’s Agriculture Department, said since raw milk is not pasteurized, it must also be tested for foodborne pathogens, in addition to the same quality-control tests performed on pasteurized milk.
The five pathogen tests are for Salmonella, Listeria, campylobacter and two types of E. coli. Up to nine tests are often conducted on raw-milk samples. Washington officials say raw milk is one of the highest risk food products for sale in the state.
“Raw milk and raw milk products such as artisan cheeses and fresh cheeses are high-risk products and potential sources of pathogenic bacteria that can cause serious illness, hospitalizations, or death,” the state Agriculture Department said in its request for funding to hire another microbiologist to meet the growing work load related to raw milk.
The department is conducting more than five times the number of tests on raw milk than it did in 2006. With that in mind, the department’s original budget request was for $252,000 annually to hire two microbiologists so it “can continue to fulfill its statutory obligation to analyze raw-milk samples.”
“Without this funding, the laboratory will have to reduce or eliminate critical surveillance testing of raw-milk products, putting consumers at greater risk of severe illness or death,” according to the budget request.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee only asked for half the amount of the department’s request in his budget proposal to the 2016 Legislature.
The proposal’s fate, which will include how much money the Agriculture Department will actually get for microbiological testing of raw milk and other testing-related expenses, won’t be known until April. Even so, Hector Castro, communications director of the department, said “any additional funding is a plus.”
“Our goal is to get the appropriate funding for testing,” Steve Fuller, department policy assistant, said. “We’re committed to doing this for the sake of food safety.”
“We want to make sure the risks are mitigated,” said Castro.
THE NUMBERS GAP — ‘TOO SMALL TO FAIL’
The wide gap between what raw-milk dairies pay to be licensed as Grade A dairies, compared to the costs they incur, comes in loud and clear in a recent report the state ag department prepared for the Washington Legislature.
Currently, all dairies — conventional and raw milk alike — pay an annual $250 license fee, an amount that was recently raised from $50. That adds up to a total of $9,750 per year for the state’s 39 raw-milk dairies.
Samples are collected from raw-milk dairies each month by department food-safety officers. The microbiology lab receives about 52 samples from the 39 farms. Some farms produce more than one product, which is why there are more samples to be analyzed than individual farms.
When looking at the per sample costs, and the annual cost for the microbiology laboratory to test samples from raw milk dairies, the total cost comes to $252,000 per year. Breaking that down on a per dairy basis, it costs the department $6,462 to test raw-milk product samples.
Then there are the expenses that come when a foodborne pathogen is found. Followup work can include an outbreak investigation, a recall of the contaminated products and other response activities. This additional work involves the ag department’s Food Safety Program and the microbiology laboratory.
In the past eight years, the microbiological lab has found illness-causing microorganisms in raw milk 15 times. Fifty-three illnesses associated with raw milk were reported in that same time period.
The lab has added modern lab testing methods and technology to provide a quicker turnaround for test results. This, in turn, allows the department to respond more quickly to foodborne illnesses caused by contaminated milk. But this newer technology, which includes molecular-based testing, is more expensive than older methods, according to the department’s budget request.
There are other costs, some of them considerable, and offsets as well, but when looking at the overall picture, the department’s report says that if each raw-milk dairy were to pay all the costs required for licensing, the price would be $12,378 plus the $250 licensing fee. As it stands, the state is paying about 98% of those costs.
But, department officials contend, because the raw-milk dairies are so small, “an annual assessment of that magnitude would be extremely challenging for most raw milk dairies to absorb.”
WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM OLYMPIA
It was an E. coli outbreak in 2006 that sickened 18 people who drank raw milk from a herd-share dairy that galvanized Washington’s state legislators into action. Under herd-share arrangements, which many people refer to as a “legal loophole,” customers, not the dairy, own the cows.
Dan Wood, now the executive director of the Washington State Dairy Federation and then a top official with the state’s Farm Bureau, said in response to the 2006 outbreak, a state legislator proposed making anything having to do with raw milk a Class C felony, subject to a $5,000 fine and a year in jail.
It was then that the Dairy Federation and the Farm Bureau realized the state would have to decide to either require inspections and testing or close its eyes to the fact that people were going to obtain of raw milk anyway.
“That’s why we supported Grade A requirements,” Wood said. “People need to have confidence in the entire industry. Our point 10 years ago was that all dairy products need to be safe, and inspections and testing help us do that. The public needs to know that the milk they’re getting here in Washington is coming from a Grade A dairy.”
Referring to herd-share dairies that were operating “under the radar,” he said the state made the right move by opening the door to them so they could become licensed as Grade A dairies — as long as they met all the necessary requirements, which includes inspections and testing.
Besides helping raw-milk dairies come into the Grade A fold by assessing only a fraction of the actual cost to become licensed, the state has also reached out in other ways to help the industry. In 2006, thanks to a legislative appropriation, the Agriculture Department receives $45,000 annually.
And in 2005, a change in a state reg allowed raw-milk producers to cap milk bottles by hand, instead of having to cap them with machines. This reduced the capital costs needed for a raw-milk dairy to go into business and, according to the Agriculture Department, “fueled at least some of the observed growth.”
As for the budget request to fund another microbiologist for raw-milk testing, dairyman Sinnema said that it is very important that raw milk continue to be as safe as possible.
“If it is necessary to hire another microbiologist in order to help keep the quality of raw milk in Washington state at its current level, then that is something that should be looked into,” he said.
(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)© Food Safety News