“Buyer, be informed.”
That’s the goal of a raw-milk “package deal” in Maine sent last month to the Portland City Council for consideration. It not only recommends that raw-milk sales be allowed at the city’s farmers markets, but would also require raw-milk vendors at the city’s three farmers markets to supply customers with information advising them of the potential health risks of consuming raw milk or raw-milk products.
Raw milk has not been pasteurized to kill fecal pathogens such as E. coli O157:H7 that might contaminate the milk.
As proposed by the City Council’s Health and Recreation Commission, the information placards would be displayed by raw-milk vendors at their booths.
The draft of the placard, titled “The Risks of Drinking Raw (Unpasteurized) Milk”, is, in large part, based on information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But in coming up with the information for the placard, staff members also looked at peer-reviewed studies and articles about raw milk, which are listed in a 10-page collection of resource background material.
The irony of this new development on Maine’s “raw-milk front” is that the raw-milk vendors at the city’s farmers markets had no idea that the city prohibited such sales.
That’s not surprising because some of them had been selling their raw milk there for years with no indication from the city that they weren’t supposed to be doing so.
Then, too, state law allows raw milk from state-licensed raw-milk dairies to be sold on the farm and at retail establishments, which includes farmers markets.
But it turns out that when it comes to what’s allowed to be sold at Portland’s popular and well-attended farmers markets, unpasteurized milk isn’t on the list.
The raw-milk vendors discovered that in September when the city’s new full-time food-service inspector visited the city’s farmers markets and saw raw milk being sold there. She told the vendors they could no longer do that.
Heather Donahue, co-owner of Balfour Farm, and one of the raw-milk vendors at the Wednesday farmers market, said it came as a complete surprise, not only to the vendors but also to their customers.
Casting about for solutions, a group of about 12 raw-milk advocates showed up at the city’s Health and Recreation Commission’s meeting while its members were deliberating on whether hard cider could be sold at the farmers markets.
That gave them an opening to ask that raw milk also be included on the list of approved sales items.
When asked why Portland’s regulations on this issue aren’t in sync with those of the state, council member John Anton told Food Safety News that sometimes municipalities in his state “weigh in on health matters regulated by the state.” An example of that is smoking. Anton said that while the city and the state’s smoking regulations are now fairly in sync, Portland banned smoking in restaurants and bars before the state did, and, similarly, Portland limited smoking outside at bars and restaurants before the state did.
Maine does not allow the sale of raw milk and raw-milk products in restaurants, schools, hospitals or nursing homes.
Balfour Farm’s Donahue said that no other farmers markets in the state require farmers to supply customers with cautionary information about raw milk, nor do stores where it’s sold. And that includes stores in Portland, itself. According to Maine law, no sort of warning notice is required on raw-milk containers. In fact, the state requires only that the word “unpasteurized” to be included on the label.
Donahue said she’s not against the idea of a placard informing people about the potential risk of drinking raw milk, although she wonders why produce growers who use pesticides on their crops don’t have to warn consumers that the produce they’re buying might be contaminated.
Even so, she said that “the more we can educate people about food, the better.”
But she does worry about the extra expense of handing out information to consumers, something that has been proposed. She would prefer that the city’s Health Department supply the farmers markets with informative packets about food safety that can be handed out at a separate “tent” at the markets.
She also takes exception to some of the wording on the proposed raw-milk placard, for example, this sentence: “Your eyes do not always see the danger; the cows can be grass-fed, organic, open-pasture grazed, and appear healthy, but the milk can still become contaminated.”
Julianne Sullivan, director of the city’s Public Health Department, told Food Safety News that that sentence has been taken out and the revised version is only about one-half page long. She also said she’s been asked not to release it to the public yet.
In either December or January, the full City Council will consider the proposed ordinance allowing raw-milk sales at city farmers markets, as well as the wording and the use of the placard. Sullivan said the council can approve both, change the wording in both, or even shoot everything down.
The meeting about this issue, as well as the consideration of the sale of hard cider at the farmers markets, is not yet posted on the council’s agenda schedule.
In explaining why the city wants farmers market customers to be informed about the potential health risks associated with raw milk, Portland Health Director Sullivan said that the city received a large grant to help attract more people to the farmers markets. But that means some of these market-newcomers — among them immigrants and food stamp recipients who can use their Electronics Transfer Benefits card to buy food at the markets — might not know much, if anything at all, about the potential risks associated with raw milk.
“We feel there’s insufficient information about raw milk available to consumers,” Sullivan said. “We want people to be clear about the risks involved so they can make responsible decisions.”
One of the problems, said Sullivan, is the amount of misinformation about raw milk that raw-milk advocates are promoting, much of it based on anecdotes and available on the web.
“A lot of that misinformation is not based on science,” Sullivan said. “We really just want people to be able to make an educated choice. We want them to know the risks, which can be very serious.”
Balfour Farm’s Donahue said the efforts to allow raw milk sales at the farmers markets have been managed well.
“I haven’t seen any outright opposition,” she said. “The city wasn’t ugly about it. They even told our customers they could buy our raw milk at the farm or other locations. It hasn’t been cantankerous at all.”
She also said that the state’s agriculture department is very supportive of small farms and its staff was helpful getting their farm, which just recently relocated to Maine from New York, up and running.
“Maine is not overly cumbersome,” she said, referring to state regulations that require licensing, testing and inspections for raw-milk dairies. “But you have to do it the right way. If you don’t, you’ll get someone sick.”
When talking about her customers, Donahue readily said that “many people are adamant about raw milk.” A lot of people tell her they grew up drinking raw milk and she often hears: “I’ve wanted to come back to this.”
She describes her customer base as “varied” — older people as well as moms with kids.
“Raw milk is really a draw for farmers markets,” she said. “We (raw-milk producers) have farmers market managers calling and asking us to come and sell at their markets.”
A Portland farmers market vendor Hanne Tierney, co-owner of Cornerstone Farms, agrees.
“That’s absolutely true,” Tierney told Food Safety News. “A well-rounded market includes raw milk. It’s absolutely fantastic to have.”
Balfour Farm’s Donahue said she has found that people in Maine are an independent lot who hold true to their independence and freedom.
“The people here value their small farms,” she said. “They treasure that part of their history and want to see it continue.”
As for the placard advising people of the potential health risks association with raw milk, one Portland farmers market manager told newspaper reporters that he worries that it could be a “slippery slope” leading to required warnings on other foods such as lettuce and spinach sold at farmers markets.
But for council member Cheryl Leeman, it’s a practical solution.
In an e-mail to Food Safety News, she said that “upon the advice and recommendation of the city’s Public Health Department, a warning about the possible health risk of raw milk was suggested if it is to be sold on the city’s public grounds at the farmers market.”
“I thought that to be reasonable given the evidence and controversy presented about raw milk, and a ‘happy medium’ to satisfy all the parties,” she said. “It allows the product to be sold, and provides information for the consumer.”
When it comes to recalls or outbreaks associated with raw milk in Maine, Amy Robbins, epidemiologist with Maine’s Center for Disease Control of Prevention, said in an e-mail to Food Safety News that in the past 5 years, no outbreaks related to raw (unpasteurized) milk products have been identified in Maine, although outbreaks related to raw (unpasteurized) milk products have occurred in other states.
Maine, which has 32 operations that are allowed to sell raw milk and 65 licensed to sell cheese, is one of 11 states that allows the sale of raw milk at retail stores separate from the farm. Along with 7 other states, it has high standards for cleanliness of the milk, with a coliform standard of no more than 10 coliform bacteria per milliliter, which is equivalent to the national and some international standards for pasteurized milk
What about the Blue Hill lawsuit?
A lawsuit filed by the state on Nov. 3 against Blue Hill, Maine, farmer Dan Brown, owner of Gravel Wood Farm, for selling or offering raw milk and raw-milk products at farmers markets and his farm stand, as well as for not labeling his milk as “unpasteurized,” differs from what’s happening in Portland.
Unlike the licensed raw-milk farms that sell at Portland’s city’s markets, Gravel Wood Farm is not a licensed raw-milk dairy. However, Brown, who sells directly to customers, is claiming that under a “food sovereignty” ordinance passed by five Maine towns, his small farm is exempt from all state and federal licensing, labeling and inspection regulations.
More information about this issue is available here.
Market photo courtesy of the Portland Farmers Market. Milk images courtesy of Balfour Farm.