When it comes to dairy production, Montana is not even among the top 30 states, but it may soon be selling the most dangerous raw milk in America. Only four people in the vast state will be responsible for regulating the raw milk supply there, and there won’t be much in the way of rules. Missoula Republican Champ Edmunds, who is exploring a run for the U.S. Senate in 2014 against Democrat Max Baucus, has succeeded in getting his “small herd exemption” bill through the Montana House of Representatives on a stunning 96-to-3 vote. State Rep. Edmunds may be taking a page from Montana’s other U.S. Senator, Democrat Jon Tester, who made advocacy for small farms his hallmark. As the primary sponsor of House Bill 574, Edmunds may be trumping Tester by creating a “Big Sky” size loophole in Montana’s dairy laws. Here’s just some of what the 16-page bill includes:
- A “small herd” exemption for dairy herds of fewer than 15 lactating cows, 30 lactating goats, or 30 lactating sheep.
- It allows these “small herd” dairies to sell unpasteurized or raw milk directly to the public.
- The “small herd” exemption not only covers licensing, but also sanitation, quality and labeling. (There is a permit for the exemption that in turn allows the sale of raw milk and raw milk products for human consumption.)
- Testing is limited and the standard set is “wholesomeness.” As originally drafted, the bill included testing for bacteria, coliform and somatic cells, and set numerical standards that had to be met. Those specific requirements were axed before final passage.
- The powers of the Montana Department of Livestock to supervise sanitary conditions and to write rules and collect fees were also all eliminated. Later the bill allow the department to do some sampling and testing routinely done at other dairy production facilities. It does allow the department to require “small herd” record keeping.
- Liability for all illnesses and deaths caused by raw milk or raw milk products in Montana is transferred to the consumer, who under the bill “assumes inherent risks in consuming milk or milk products that are not pasteurized, whether those risks are known or unknown, and is legally responsible for all injury or death to the person and for all damages to the person’s property that result from the inherent risks in the consumption of raw milk or milk products.”
- The bill also says it is NOT the duty of Montana state government to see that raw milk is free from the inherent risks so long as it comes from a “small herd” permit holder.
- Facilities operating under a “small herd” permit are not to be considered a “manufactured dairy products” plant or factory.
Raw milk or raw milk products sold under the bill would require a warning label. The required language is: “Warning—This product contains unpasteurized milk, also known as raw milk.” Edmunds was not available for comment on the bill, which has now gone over to the Montana Senate, which continues in session until April 27. Safe raw milk sales are difficult because time and distance increase the risks. States like Wisconsin and Indiana that have looked at how unpasteurized milk might be sold more safely have concluded that hefty regulatory schemes would be required. With HB 574, Montana will be taking a very different route that disregards findings by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta that say raw milk is 150 times more likely to cause an outbreak of disease than pasteurized milk or that it is the most likely food to put someone in the hospital. While not in the top 30, Montana’s dairy industry is concerned about the Edmunds bill. “We have a dairy industry in the state of Montana, and it’s something that we all bust our butts to make a living at,” dairy farmer Jeff Lewis told the Missoulian newspaper. “The biggest issue I see with the bill is it would completely undermine the dairy industry. It doesn’t put us on an even playing field.” A “fiscal note” on the bill by the Governor’s Office of Budget and Program Planning says the exemption will cost Montana almost $300,000 a year. It says there will be four sanitarians statewide to check on exempted producers. Edmunds is a veteran of the U.S. Navy’s Submarine Service who moved to Montana in 1997. He then earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration, accounting and finance from the University of Montana. He is ciurrently a mortgage banker in Missoula.