An inconveniently timed outbreak of Campylobacter infection 200 miles west of Trenton in Pennsylvania may trip up a bill to allow commercial sale of raw milk in New Jersey.

Linda Doherty, president of the powerful New Jersey Food Council, took to the editorial pages of state’s newspapers Monday to caution lawmakers against making raw milk legal in the Garden State.

She pointed to the (now 65) Campylobacter illnesses in four states, including New Jersey residents who got sick from drinking contaminated raw milk produced by the Your Family Cow dairy in Chambersburg, PA.

“The common link between these people was the consumption of raw, unpasteurized milk purchased from the Your Family Cow Farm near Chambersburg, PA,” says Doherty.

Doherty noted that just as state and federal investigations into the outbreak were getting underway, the New Jersey Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee was hearing and ultimately approving Assembly Bill 518 with a favorable recommendation.

Last year, it took less than a month after committee action for an identical bill to win a 71-6 vote on the Assembly floor, with one absent or not voting. The Assembly leadership this year is getting pushback against the bill from mainstream food industry leaders.

Doherty says the reasoning behind New Jersey’s existing ban on raw milk sales “is sound public policy: Pasteurization save lives.” She says while the retail food and distribution industry in New Jersey is doing everything it can to reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses, it does not need the “unnecessary and unacceptable risk” of raw milk.

New Jersey consumers’ current appetite for raw milk is largely fueled from the neighboring states of New York and Pennsylvania; where dairies close to the border are known to violate federal law by crossing state borders to make deliveries.

The retail food and distribution industry represented by Doherty’s group employs 3.4 million New Jersey residents. It is joined by the pasteurized dairy industry, including such groups as the Syracuse, NY-based Northeast Dairy Foods Association Inc.   

Of course, finding fervent support for raw milk in New Jersey, however, is not difficult. Raw milk-drinking New Jersey residents would like nothing better than the opportunity to fill up a hearing room in Trenton.

A unanimous Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee voted to sent A518 to the floor with only a couple of amendments. One change was a technical correction, but in the other the committee added language calling for a specific warning label on all unpasteurized milk containers.

The bill also calls for the state departments of Agriculture and Health to work together to establish a raw milk permit program. A permit would entitle the holder “to sell, offer for sale or otherwise make available raw milk at the farm or property where the milk is produced.”

A518 calls for the two departments to establish standards for raw milk. In addition to using warning labels, raw milk dairies must submit to inspection by the ag department sign affidavits stating the milk was produced without growth hormones.

Permit fees would pay the costs of the program, and failed tests would have to be reported.

After gaining the big favorable vote last year in the Assembly, the raw milk bill was bottled up in the Senate Economic Growth Committee, where it died when the last year’s session ended.

The cross-border problem posed by differing state treatment of raw milk has been evident in the Campylobacter outbreak. While the dairy involved, Your Family Cow, is located in Pennsylvania, neighboring Maryland Health Department discovered the outbreak and detected  the pathogenic bacteria in two unopened bottles of milk.

Like other Pennsylvania dairies, Family Cow sells it raw milk at its on-farm store, other drop-off locations and in retail stores, mostly in border counties to make it easy for customers from states where raw milk is banned to drive north from Maryland or west from New Jersey to make pickups.

Family Cow resumed production last week after passing Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture inspection.