Raw milk advocates did score one big victory this year.
Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen on May 21st signed a law making it legal to own “cow shares” in order get one’s own legal supply of raw milk for personal use.
That carefully constructed victory — the work of the Weston A. Price Foundation and the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund — was one of dozens of legislative skirmishes that occurred at the state level this year over how raw milk laws should be written.
USA Today last week did an article around the theme that there is a “national battle” over raw milk that is “heating up.” Actually, it’s the same old battle that has waged during most of this decade. It’s a bill introduced in one state, a committee hearing that gets held in another, and it’s a rare notion that goes all the way.
In Tennessee, for example, the advocates were not seeking to make raw milk legal, just get a bill that made cow share programs legal. They took very deliberate steps, even sending out notice to their grassroots supporters on when NOT to shake the legislative tree too much because things for the moment were going that well.
They got a bill that says nothing in Tennessee law “shall be construed as prohibiting the independent or partial owner of any hoofed mammal from using the milk from such animal for the owner’s personal consumption or other use.”
The Weston a. Price Foundation says 28 states allow raw milk sales with five additional states allowing it to be sold as pet food. However, state laws governing when and how milk is sold are pretty complex and the details can make the legal impossible.
The details are the business of state legislatures.
In Maryland, where raw milk is illegal, House Bill 1080 got a hearing in 2009. In 2006, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene defined cow-boarding agreement as an illegal sale of raw milk.
HB 1080 would make cow-boarding agreements in Maryland legal. The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, also active in Maryland, testified that cow boarding agreements are less likely to generate lawsuits because of the close bond that develops between the farmer and shareowners.
The New Jersey Assembly Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee also held a hearing earlier this year on a bill to make raw milk legal, at least on the farm. Proponents told lawmakers that they’d wanted legal, regulated sales and pointed to New York and Pennsylvania as models. Both of those states allow on-farm sales.
States looking at allowing some form of on-farm sales usually are experiencing the rapid loss of dairy farms. Only 111 are left in New Jersey, fewer than 600 in Maryland, and fewer than 1,000 in Tennessee.
States typically enact tougher restrictions against raw milk after outbreaks of Campylobacter jejuni, E. coli, and Listeria monocytogenes as the unpasteurized milk is susceptible to dangerous pathogens.
USA Today reports that both Texas and Connecticut this year turned back proposals to clamp down harder on raw milk sales.
Most state legislatures convene again in January when the raw milk battles will resume.