New Jersey teetered on the brink of allowing commercial raw milk sales last year, but it did not happen.
Assembly Bill 743, setting up a permit system and allowing the commercial sale of raw milk, passed New Jersey’s lower house on a 71-6 vote (with one abstention) way back in March, 2011.
A743 was then sent to the Senate Economic Growth Committee, where nothing more happened until late December, when committee chairman Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, gave the proposal a spirited public hearing. However, he announced before starting that A743 was dead because it did not have enough votes to clear the committee.
For raw milk advocates, there was some hope for another hearing and a vote when the Senate met for the final two days of the expiring session, Jan. 5 and Jan. 9. But that did not happen. A743 was officially dead.
On Jan. 10, a carbon copy of A743 was introduced into the new Assembly session under the new number A518. The measure is missing one sponsor, Rep. Charlotte Vandervalk, a 39th District Republican, who retired from the Assembly after 20 years.
The new bill was assigned to the Assembly Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. The same drill occurred in the state Senate, with the new bill getting the number S5279. It was assigned to the Senate Economic Growth Committee.
Changing numbers does not mean there has been any change to the bill’s language permitting commercial sales.
Sponsors want to make populous New Jersey the 31st state to allow commercial raw milk sales. The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) says 30 states currently allow raw milk sales, although in 13 of those states unpasteurized milk is restricted to on-farm sales.
In the last three years, there have been numerous proposals in state legislative bodies both to ease raw-milk restrictions and to tighten raw-milk regulations. During that time period, NASDA reports five states have increased quality standards for unpasteurized dairy products.
Because of New Jersey’s sheer size, however, there is considerable interest in what steps it may take. It also borders Pennsylvania and New York, where raw milk sales are legal. Not only do New Jersey residents already drive to those neighboring states to pick up raw milk, but there are also some sophisticated delivery routes in place.
Sponsors of the New Jersey bill say they could only get it through the Assembly last year by accepting an amendment to limit sales to farm stands.
In the new Assembly, sponsors are picking up on new “value-added” theme, namely that the Garden State’s remaining 87 dairy farms need a value-added product to survive.
Another public hearing, this one on the Assembly side, will probably occur fairly early in the new legislative session. In the December Senate hearing, raw milk advocates squared off against joint opposition by the public health community and the New Jersey Food Council.
The council, representing food retailers and suppliers, fears that raw milk-caused outbreaks could hurt state dairy sales of pasteurized products.
The “value-added” theme is popping up in numerous statehouses this year, perhaps most notably in Vermont, where value-added legislation has been introduced to clear the way to “turn milk into cheese, apples into cider, and trees into furniture.”
Advocates say raw milk, which typically goes for $8 to $10 a gallon, tastes better than pasteurized milk. They also say it has health benefits. The Food and Drug Administration says research shows no meaningful difference in the benefits of pasteurized and unpasteurized milk, and that raw milk carries a greater risk of bacterial contamination than pasteurized milk.
At December’s New Jersey Senate hearing, raw milk advocates presented testimony from Dr. Theodore F. Beals, a physician licensed by the State of Michigan, claiming 10 million people drink raw milk while annually only 35 become ill.
The FDA, based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state data, says that from 1987 there were at least 133 outbreaks due to the consumption of raw milk and raw milk products, and that these outbreaks caused 2,659 cases of illnesses, 269 hospitalizations, 3 deaths, 6 stillbirths and 2 miscarriages.
No hearings on the measure are scheduled yet in New Jersey, perhaps in part because the state Legislature is off to a delayed start due to the death of Republican Assembly Leader Alex DeCrocie. Gov. Chris Christie postponed his State-of-the-State address to accommodate services for the veteran lawmaker.