On May 10 the Boston Common was graced with a scene not seen in decades: grazing cows and people milking cows on the grass in the middle of the bustling city.

The event was part of the Raw Milk Drink In, organized by members of the Northeast Organic Farming Association’s Massachusetts Raw Milk Network in an effort to protest the state’s proposal to limit the activities of raw milk-buying clubs.

Officials proposed new language to be added to current state regulations that govern the sale or raw milk.  The new regulations would make it illegal for consumers to entrust another individual to purchase milk from the farm on their behalf.  In other words, the regulations would outlaw raw milk-buying clubs which have made raw milk accessible to hundreds of families for many years.

The way most buying clubs operate is that a designated member of the club travels to a distant farm, buys large quantities of raw milk, and returns to the community to distribute the product to local members at a designated pickup location.  The driver usually drives to the farm in a vehicle with refrigeration capabilities.

Proposed regulations would have also made Massachusetts the first state in the nation to make milk-buying clubs illegal.  Commissioner Scott J. Soares cited the numerous diseases and bacteria that can contaminate raw milk, including E. coli, Salmonella, and Clostridium botulinum, the bacterium that causes botulism.

Earlier this year, the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources sent cease-and-desist letters to four raw milk-buying clubs as they had begun to gain popularity in the state.  This action was not received well by members of the clubs, and they quickly organized by drumming up interest, sending out emails, and even making a facebook group which had over 500 fans at the time this article went to print.

After the protest on Boston Common, Soares listened to professed raw milk drinkers for 3 and a half hours at the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources headquarters last Friday.

Defending the Agriculture Department’s actions against the clubs, Soares told the Boston Globe, “They were operating illegally; they were engaged in a commercial business that they were not licensed for.  The sanitation controls that are required by the state are at the farm, and we have no way of knowing what happens to the product after it leaves the farm.”

Supporters of raw milk say that since Massachusetts began licensing farms to sell raw milk in 1993, there have been zero illnesses or deaths associated with consumption.  Of the 107 dairy farms in the state, only 27 are licensed to sell raw milk onsite.

“The vast majority are very informal and quiet and do no advertising.  But you’ll find that they are all incredibly passionate about raw milk and its benefits,” the Northeast Organic Farming Association’s Massachusetts Raw Milk Network coordinator, Winton Pitcoff told the Boston Globe.

Pitcoff also explained that it is difficult to know the number of buying clubs in the state or of members.  “Sometimes, it’s a person doing something nice for his neighbors on a regular basis,” he said.

According to the Massachusetts Raw Milk Network website, last week the Agriculture Department dropped the proposed raw milk language in favor of taking a ‘broader look’ at raw milk marketing agencies.  The Agriculture Department cited ‘passion and concern’ associated with the issue.

“The passion and concern on all sides of the raw milk debate have led [the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources] to plan for a broader look at the issues associated with raw milk.  While [the Agriculture Department] expects that there are many ways that raw milk can impact the milk market, further investigation into all aspects of this issue is needed,” the Agriculture Department press release stated.

The Agriculture Department’s full statement about holding hearings on removing proposed revisions to 330 CMR 27 can be found on the agency Website.