Bucking a 60-35 vote by the Wisconsin state Assembly in favor of raw milk legislation that would allow dairy farmers to sell unpasteurized milk directly to consumers, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle on May 19 vetoed the legislation in its entirety, citing public health concerns as the reason.
“I cannot ignore the potential harmful health effects of consuming unpasteurized milk that have been raised by many groups,” he said in a press release, referring to groups that include the Wisconsin Public Health Association and the Wisconsin Academy of Family Physicians.
Under the controversial bill, which attracted the interest of ardent supporters and alarmed opponents alike, farmers who sell unpasteurized milk would be required to test their dairy’s milk monthly, and if pathogens are found, the state’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection could suspend a farmer’s registration.
But, in his press release, Doyle said that these monthly tests would not go far enough to ensure that all of the farmer’s milk is free from harmful pathogens, which could result in serious illness or even death.
Doyle pointed to other states that allow the sale of raw milk that have had to strengthen standards that are stricter than those in the Wisconsin bill after outbreaks caused by raw milk occurred in those states.
He also pointed to California’s approach to raw milk, which requires more comprehensive testing than contained in the Wisconsin bill. In addition, said Doyle, California’s testing regimen quantifies coliform bacteria–a broad group of organisms that includes some types of pathogens. It also provides an overall indication of the hygiene level of the milk.
Bottom line, said Doyle in his press release, the Wisconsin bill doesn’t contain adequate testing requirements to make sure the public is safe when consuming unpasteurized milk.
California raw milk producer Mark McAfee, co-owner of Organic Pastures Dairy Company near Fresno, Calif., told Food Safety News he wasn’t surprised that the Wisconsin governor had vetoed the bill, given “the loose standards the bill suggested.”
Pointing to the regulatory environment and recent raw milk illnesses in Utah, for example, McAfee said that if Wisconsin ever allows the sale of raw milk, the standards need to be “close to or even better than those of California.”
“It’s important for the entire raw milk industry that states get this right,” McAfee said. “They need to have good testing and good standards. Each step they (the states) take has to be right.”
Even so, McAfee doesn’t see the governor’s veto as the end of the line for raw milk in Wisconsin.
“It could be the beginning,” he said, referring to possible future legislation that replicates or exceeds the requirements of California.
Gov. Doyle has similar thoughts on this issue, pointing to a recently formed Raw Milk Working Group made up of a wide array of interested parties and experts.
The purpose of the group is to consider whether there are legal, regulatory means that might allow dairy farmers in Wisconsin to sell raw milk directly to consumers. And if so, what conditions would be necessary to protect public health.
The group met for the first time on March 15 this year and expects to continue meeting through July.
In his press release, Doyle said that the Working Group should be allowed to complete its analysis prior to making changes to the legal framework surrounding unpasteurized milk.
Doyle’s veto could be overridden with a vote of two-thirds of both houses of the Legislature. But a veto override has not happened in Wisconsin for more than 20 years.
In vetoing the legislation, Doyle is following in the steps of a previous “revolution” over raw milk in his state.
In 1920, a Milwaukee ordinance requiring that all milk sold in the city be pasteurized got milk dealers so angry that they blasted it as an invalid exercise of police power because it did not promote public health, according to a rundown on the history of pasteurization of milk in the United States provided by food safety attorney Bill Marler.
Despite those claims on the part of the milk dealers, the Wisconsin Supreme Court disagreed, saying that “Public health demands that milk and all milk products should be pure and wholesome.”
For Marler, who has represented children and families all over the country sickened by E. coli and other food contaminants, Doyle did the right thing.
“Because Wisconsin’s well-known as the ‘Dairy State,’ it sends the message that other states need to take a deep breath and understand that raw milk does not come without risks,” Marler said.
Not surprisingly, national dairy organizations are pleased that the governor vetoed the bill, pointing to concerns over the negative effects that outbreaks of illnesses linked to raw milk could have on the milk industry as a whole.
Recognizing the pressure the governor was under, especially given the Wisconsin lawmakers’ strong support of the bill, the National Milk Producers Federation and the International Dairy Foods Association said that his action “demonstrates a commitment to health and safety.”
Before he vetoed the bill, Doyle had been quoted in an AP article saying that people who grew up on farms drinking raw milk seem to be “healthier and stronger for it.”
On the other side of the fence, raw milk advocates in favor of the Wisconsin legislation saw it as an important step toward giving politicians in other states the courage to withstand pressures against legalizing sales of raw milk. This, in turn, they said, would provide an important toehold in efforts to give people across the nation the right to buy and drink raw milk.
The contentious issue has become entangled with consumers’ right-to-choose and the Constitutional rights of consumers, with many raw milk advocates lauding the health benefits of raw milk.
The Weston A. Price Foundation, based in Reston, Virginia, says raw milk boosts the immune system. It also points to all sorts of ailments it has purportedly cured–asthma, kidney disease, diabetes, heart failure, high blood pressure, and prostate disease, among others.
But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns that the risks of illness, and even death, that can result from consuming raw milk far outweigh any of the purported benefits promoted by raw milk advocates.
While raw milk represents less than 1 percent of fluid milk consumption, it causes more than 70 percent of the foodborne illness outbreaks associated with dairy, according to the International Dairy Foods Association.
In the same vein, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that before pasteurization was widely instituted in the 1920s, disease outbreaks from raw milk were the No. 1 food safety concern in the country.
Although 28 states allow the sale of raw milk, provided that the producers meet certain standards, federal law forbids the sale of raw milk across state lines.