Dr. Paul Cieslak was probably the last guy a group of small farmers trying to win exemptions from state food safety rules wanted showing up at the Oregon House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.
Cieslak is communicable disease manager at the Oregon Department of Human Services Public Health Division, and he was there to speak against expanded raw milk sales in the state.
“We have significant problems with the raw milk provisions of this bill (HB 2222),” said Cieslak, one of the top scientists on the state government’s payroll.
Cieslak made it clear to the committee that Oregon’s public health authorities not only oppose the raw milk language contained in the bill but also cow share schemes, and or anything else that would liberalize sales in the state.
Raw milk would expose too many Oregonians to too many dangerous pathogens, including E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella, and Campylobacter, health officials say.
During four hours of public hearings Feb. 2 that dragged on into the early evening, the state Legislature’s House Ag Committee heard from the public on both HB 2336, which would exempt certain homemade food from licensing and inspection, and HB 2222, the so-called Family Farm Act.
Both bills seek to carve out exemptions from food-safety regulations for Oregon’s smaller producers.
Historically, roadside stands where Oregon farmers sold their own fruits and vegetables went unlicensed and uninspected. But, in recent years, there’s been an explosion of farmers markets and other venues for making direct sales of all kinds of food items to public.
To sort it all out, a task force led by Wilsonville Republican Rep. Matt Wingard drafted HB 2336, exempting some homemade food from inspection up to $20,000 in sales.
“I believe we have adequately worked through the flaws,” Wingard told the public hearing.
Joining Wingard in praising the homemade foods bill was Rebecca Landis with the Oregon Farmers’ Markets Association. She said the bill carves out exemptions for low risk/low acid foods and shields home kitchen producers from license fees that run from $189 to $325 a year.
Landis said the bill focuses on the small producers that the Oregon Department of Agriculture often gave administrative exemptions to without much statutory authority.
The Northwest Food Processors Association strongly opposes the bill, a spokesman said. She said food safety should be the No. 1 public policy consideration and removing an entire sector of food processing industry from oversight is unacceptable.
“We don’t believe small batch is safer,” she said.
Numerous members of Friends of Family Farmers, the Oregon group that wrote HB 2222 to expand raw milk sales, spoke out in favor of the proposed law. Most said there is more demand for raw milk than they can supply under Oregon’s current three cow limit. They also said the public deserves a choice that includes raw milk.
Raw milk is also a lucrative product for small dairies, because it can command up to three or four times the price of pasteurized milk.
Public health officials, however, were not alone in their opposition to letting more raw milk flow. The Oregon Dairy Association, the Farm Bureau, and numerous farmers spoke out against expanded raw milk sales.
“If you want raw milk, milk some cows,” one quipped.
The two bills also exempt the slaughter of up to 1,000 chickens annually, make it easier to obtain tax cuts on land being farmed, and add two farmers who would represent the direct-sales community to the state Ag board.
The committee has yet to take any action on either bill.