In a victory for raw-milk farmers, Maine’s Portland City Council has given a unanimous thumbs-up to allow raw-milk sales at the city’s farmers’ markets.
The City Council also handed the dairy farmers another victory by voting 5 to 4 against an amendment that would have required them to post a placard informing consumers of the potential health risks linked to drinking raw milk.
Raw milk is milk that hasn’t been pasteurized to kill potentially harmful bacteria such as E. coli, Salmonella and E. coli that can cause severe illness.
The proposed placard, as drawn up by the city’s Department of Health and Human Services, warned that children, pregnant women, the elderly and those living with conditions that weaken the immune system are at the greatest risk of becoming ill from drinking raw milk. It also warned that raw milk outbreaks are responsible for nearly three times more hospitalizations than outbreaks involving any other food.
The issue came before the City Council after the city’s newly hired food-service inspector visited the Portland farmers’ markets last fall and told the raw-milk vendors that sales of unpasteurized milk were not allowed there. That came as a surprise to the vendors, because they had been selling raw milk at the markets for several years, with no previous indications from the city that they weren’t supposed to.
It turned out that although state law permits raw milk from state-licensed dairies to be sold at retail stores throughout the state, and even though raw milk is sold at other farmers’ markets in the state, the city of Portland had its own list of items that can’t be sold at its farmers’ markets. Raw milk was on that list, even though it can be sold in stores in the city.
During the City Council meeting, Mayor Michael Brennan, who cast one of the four votes in favor of requiring the placard, made no comments about why he had voted that way. But in an email to Food Safety News after the meeting, he said he voted in favor of the placard because he believes it’s important to provide “the most information” possible to consumers about “any number of food products.”
He also said his vote supported the recommendation of the council committee that had originally proposed the placard, as well as the recommendation of the city’s Department of Health and Human Services, “because both had reviewed the issue more fully.”
During the council meeting, Heather Donahue, co-owner of Balfour Farm and a raw-milk vendor at the city’s Wednesday farmers’ market, told council members that raw-milk farmers are required to inform customers that the milk hasn’t been pasteurized by putting the words “not pasteurized” on the containers’ labels.
She also pointed out that while in the past raw milk was a “significant” carrier of diseases, many improvements have been made since then. She said that to be certified as a raw-milk dairy in Maine, the dairy herd has to be tested at regular intervals and strict sanitation practices must be followed.
In an interview after the meeting, she told Food Safety News that she was relieved that raw-milk dairies won’t have to display the placard about the potential health risks of raw milk.
“In general, the people who shop at farmers’ markets know about raw milk and seek it out,” she said. “They can get more information from us than they can from a store clerk.”
She described the proposal to require the placard as “a wrinkle that needed to be ironed out.”
Lauren Pignatello, co-owner of Swallowtail Farm and Creamery and also the manager of Portland’s winter farmers’ market, said that if consumers are being informed about the health risks of raw milk, they should also be informed about what he sees as the benefits of drinking raw milk.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there are no health benefits from drinking raw milk that cannot be obtained from drinking pasteurized milk that is free of disease-causing bacteria.
Raw-milk producer Lee Straw told council members that state-licensed raw-milk dairies are held to the same standards as conventional dairies.
“Even though the feds will say otherwise, by holding us to the same ordinances as pasteurized milk, the state seems to feel we can put out a safe product,” he said.
But Portland resident Charles Bragdon took the opposite tack, telling the council members that raw milk is “very dangerous to some members of our population” and that providing people with information about the health risks is “important, if not critical.”
Council member Cheryl Leeman, who voted in favor of requiring the placard, held up a newspaper featuring an article about a recent outbreak of food poisoning cases linked to a raw-milk dairy in Pennsylvania.
On Feb. 7, Pennsylvania health officials said there were 43 confirmed cases of Campylobacter infections among people who drank raw milk sold by the Your Family Cow farm. Maryland public health officials confirmed that the outbreak strain of bacteria was detected in two unopened containers of unpasteurized milk from the Pennsylvania dairy.
“There is a health risk with raw milk,” Leeman said, emphasizing the word “is.”
At the same time, she acknowledged that there is “clearly a public demand for raw milk.”
Looking at the issue from the perspective of a City Council member, Leeman said that because the issue is raw-milk sales on city property, the city should go along with its Health Department’s recommendation requiring the placard.
“It’s not an unreasonable request for those folks who want to sell raw milk on our property,” she said, pointing out that with the placards, the city will have done its job of making sure the public is informed.
“Then, it will be up to the consumers to weigh the pros and cons,” she said. “The final decision is really up to the consumers.”
Council member Ed Suslovic had his own concerns, saying that if he were in a rush and grabbed a container of raw milk, it would be easy for him to miss the label saying that the milk hadn’t been pasteurized.
“I’d like to see the placard,” he said.
He even went so far as to say that he’d like to offer an amendment that would require informational placards at any point of sale for raw milk in the city, which would include retail stores as well as farmers’ markets.
The amendment was not acted on.
When a council member asked why the the requirement for a placard was proposed in the first place, Douglas Gardner, director of the city’s Health and Human Services Department, explained that it seemed appropriate to tie it in with the proposal that the city allow raw milk sales at its farmers’ markets. That way consumers could have information about the basic risks associated with raw milk.
Through all of this, some council members struggled with the issue of fairness. If, for example, placards were to be required at the farmers markets but not at retail stores in the city, then the farmers’ market vendors would be at a disadvantage.
Even council member John Anton, who made the motion to remove the requirement for a placard, said he wasn’t basing his motion on public health arguments but rather concerns about how it would affect those who sell at farmers’ markets, compared with those whose milk is sold in stores.
“It feels unfair and arbitrary,” he said.
But he also said that if the city wanted a citywide requirement for an informational placard, he might support it.
In an interview after the meeting, Health Department director Gardner told Food Safety News that during the meeting, he heard several council members express an interest in looking at a citywide requirement for informational placards that would apply to all points of sale — in stores as well as at farmers’ markets.
“There was an interest at looking at a broader approach,” he said.
Warnings or Not?
Food-safety attorney Bill Marler, publisher of Food Safety News, said that a warning sign, such as the one on the placard proposed by Portland, MEs health department, should be on a bottle of raw milk as well as at the place of sale of raw milk.
He provided this example of such a sign: “WARNING: This product has not been pasteurized and may contain harmful bacteria (not limited to E. coli O157:H7, Campylobacter, Listeria and Salmonella). Pregnant women, infants, children, the elderly and persons with lowered resistance to disease (immune compromised) have the highest risk of harm, which includes diarrhea, vomiting, fever, dehydration, Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, Guillain-Barre Syndrome, reactive arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, miscarriage, or death, from use of this product.”
“Consumption of raw milk, especially for the young, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, should be warned against,” Marler said. “Just saying that the milk is not pasteurized is not enough.”
Raw Milk in Maine
Amy Robbins, epidemiologist with Maine’s Center for Disease Control of Prevention, said in an email 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.
The state does not allow raw milk or raw milk products to be sold in restaurants, schools, hospitals or nursing homes.
Maine, which has 32 dairy 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.