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House members ignore party lines, defeat raw milk measure

A representative from Kentucky said it was about consumers’ food choices. A coalition of food safety groups said it was a threat to public health — particularly children. The U.S. House just said no.

With a vote of 331-79, legislators from both sides of the aisle joined to crush an amendment to the farm bill that would have allowed the interstate sale of unpasteurized raw milk. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Thomas Massie, R-KY, said his proposed legislation would protect farmers from “federal interference” while respecting state laws. 

The federal interference referenced by Massie and the amendment’s co-sponsors Reps. Jared Polis, D-CO, and Dana Rohrabacher, R-CA, is a 1987 ban on the interstate sale of unpasteurized milk. As it did when it enacted the ban, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration continues to cite the dangers of bacteria, viruses and other pathogens that can thrive in raw milk. 

The pathogens include E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria and are particularly dangerous to children whose immune systems are not yet developed, according to state and federal public health officials. The FDA is joined by scientists at virtually all state health departments and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in warning the public against drinking unpasteurized, raw milk.

The Kentucky republican has contended for years that people should be allowed to take that risk for themselves and their children.

“The federal government should not punish farmers for providing customers the foods they want,” Massie said in a news release when he introduced the amendment.

In response to the amendment, a coalition of food safety and consumer protection groups wrote a letter of opposition to House leaders urging them to vote against the measure.

“There is simply no justification for undoing decades of public health improvement and risking the lives of consumers on a product that has been proven to be unsafe for human consumption,” the coalition said in its letter. 

“Prior to pasteurization, milk was a common source of the bacteria that cause tuberculosis, diphtheria, severe streptococcal infections, typhoid fever, and other foodborne illnesses. Recently, the illegal interstate sale of raw milk produced in Texas led to an outbreak of antibiotic-resistant Brucella that may have led to illnesses in up to seven states. All of these illnesses are preventable through pasteurization, a simple process of heating the fluid to kill bacteria, destroying these dangerous bugs and rendering the milk safe to drink while maintaining the nutritional integrity of the milk.” 

Thomas Massie

Massie’s raw milk amendment did not address health benefits or dangers from raw milk. Nor did his news release announcing his filing of the amendment. Instead, Massie focused on farmers’ rights and opposition to the federal government. The representative also said “the federal government also does not have the time, money, or resources to chase down and prosecute peaceful farmers.”

“This amendment would prohibit the federal government from interfering with the interstate traffic of raw milk products between states where distribution or sale of such products is already legal,” Massie wrote.

It is illegal to sell unpasteurized raw milk in 22 states. The remaining states prohibit most sales, except for direct-to-consumer sales at dairies and, in some states, sales to people in members-only herd share operations.

“Raw milk advocates claim that raw milk carries significant medicinal benefits. However, none of these claims are supported by rigorous science. In fact, raw milk is known to carry some of the most dangerous foodborne pathogens,” according to the letter written by the food safety groups.

“… raw milk poses heightened risks for children, a vulnerable group who often drink milk as a primary source of nutrition.”

The groups in the Safe Food Coalition that signed the letter were:

  • Center for Foodborne Illness, Research & Prevention
  • Center for Science in the Public Interest
  • Consumer Federation of America
  • National Consumers League
  • STOP Foodborne Illness
  • The Pew Charitable Trusts

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