Following what a raw milk producer described as a visit during which she “met our cows,” State Rep. Michele Presnell introduced a bill in North Carolina to allow retail sales of unpasteurized milk in the state.

The proposed measure, House Bill 103, would require warning labels for raw milk available at retail locations, but it would exempt some dairies from sanitary regulations. It’s first line describes the legislation as “an act to promote small dairy sustainability by allowing the retail sale of raw milk for human consumption.”

Public health advocates, medical groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics, and agencies from local health departments up to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all have standing warnings about the dangers of unpasteurized, raw milk. Pasteurization kills bacteria, parasites and viruses in milk and other foods and beverages. 

If the North Carolina bill is approved, people who own cows or other lactating animals, or a “share” in such animals, could continue to produce and consume unpasteurized milk. Restaurants would not be allowed to sell raw milk under Presnell’s bill. The bill, introduced Feb. 19, was re-referred to the legislature’s agriculture committee on Feb. 27. The committee has not given it a hearing. If approved by the agriculture committee, the bill would have to clear the health committee before being eligible for a floor vote.

To sell their unpasteurized milk on retailers’ shelves, dairy operators would have to obtain a valid “Grade A” milk, raw milk, or “Small Herd Raw Milk” permit from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. While the bill references the permits, it does not include specifics about what is required to obtain one.   

“A raw milk permit shall be issued to any producer of raw milk for human consumption who has a dairy herd for production of raw milk that is larger than a small herd operation,” according to the bill. “A Small Herd Raw Milk permit shall be issued to any producer of raw milk who owns a small herd operation.

“… The Small Herd Raw Milk permit shall indicate the physical location of the small herd operation and the mailing address of the owner or operator in charge of the herd’s care and milk quality. A Small Herd Raw Milk permittee shall be exempt from the sanitary, construction, inspection, and operation requirements of (this statute.)”

A “small herd” is defined in the bill as a dairy farm with a herd of no more than 10 lactating cows, 10 lactating goats, or 10 lactating sheep. The total size of a “small herd” cannot exceed 10 animals of any species.

The backstory
Local media in North Carolina have reported Presnell wrote and introduced the raw milk bill after being contacted by dairy owners Kimberly and Ernest Ramsey. The couple owns and operates Jewel Hill Farm in Marshall, NC. They have been trying to build up a herdshare clientele for their unpasteurized milk in recent months. Herdshare operations involve dairy operators selling “shares” in one or more milk producing animals to investors. The investors are, in turn, entitled to a portion of the unpasteurized milk from animal(s).

“Herdshare Agreements” became legal in North Carolina on Oct. 1, 2018, but the Jewel Hill Farm owners haven’t been able to find any labs that are willing to test their unpasteurized milk, according to the Citizen Times newspaper. The labs that test pasteurized milk for co-ops and Grade A dairies have turned the couple down flat.

“Adam called Presnell, and she decided to pay a visit to their farm,” the Citizen Times reported this week.

“About five weeks ago, she (Persnell) spent three to four hours with us,” Kimberly Ramsey told the Citizen Times. “She met our cows, saw how we handle our milk, and heard our plea.”

The couple’s pursuit of pathogen testing for their unpasteurized milk took a turn when Presnell and three other state representatives filed House Bill 103. What began as a conversation with constituents became a measure to move unpasteurized milk off of the farm and into retail dairy cases.

The proposed requirements
Sponsors of House Bill 103 — Presnell, R-Yancey; Rep. Jon Hardister, R-Guilford; Rep. John Ager, D-Buncombe; and Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford — developed a list of standards for raw milk producers.

All of the standards in the bill would have to be met or a dairy’s unpasteurized milk could not be sold at retail: 

  • The raw milk shall be cooled to 40 degrees F or less within two hours after milking, provided that the blend temperature after the first and subsequent milking does not exceed 45 degrees F;
  • Raw milk, except cultured raw milk products, shall contain no more than 10,000 bacteria per milliliter;
  • Raw milk shall contain no more than 10 coliform bacteria per milliliter;
  • The somatic cell count of bovine raw milk shall not exceed 300,000 cells per milliliter. Goat or sheep raw milk shall not exceed 750,000 cells per milliliter. Milk from commingled species must meet the somatic cell count of the most restrictive species;
  • Raw milk obtained from sheep or goats shall be from animals that have tested negative on an annual brucellosis test performed by an official laboratory approved by the state. Raw milk obtained from bovines shall be from animals that have tested negative on the Brucellosis Ring Test performed by an official laboratory approved by the state;
  • Raw milk shall be from animals that have been accredited as tuberculosis free or have passed an annual tuberculosis test;
  • Raw milk shall be produced and processed on the same premises; and
  • Raw milk shall be produced in compliance with the requirements for sanitation, construction, inspection, and operation of the most recent Pasteurized Milk Ordinance recommended by the U.S. Public Health Service/Food and Drug Administration.

The bill would also require dairy operators to label their unpasteurized, raw milk with the following information and warning:

  • A date, no more than nine days after the raw milk is produced, by which the raw milk should be sold;
  • The statement “RAW (UNPASTEURIZED) MILK, NO MATTER HOW CAREFULLY PRODUCED, MAY BE UNSAFE FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION” in letters at least one-half inch in height;
  • Instructions to refrigerate at or below 40 degrees F to preserve quality and avoid contamination or spoilage;
  • A statement identifying the species from which the raw milk was obtained; and
  • The name and address or permit number of the Small Herd Raw Milk permittee, “if applicable.”

The bill would prohibit restaurants from selling raw milk. It would require other retail establishments, such as grocery and convenience stores, to follow special signage and storage rules.

Retailers would have to place signs above any display cases containing raw milk. The signs would have to be “prominent, easily readable by consumers, and reads in print no smaller than two inches in bold type, ‘This milk is raw and unpasteurized. Please keep refrigerated.’ ” 

Retailers that want to sell both Grade A milk and unpasteurized, raw milk would be required to maintain separate, labeled refrigerated display cases for raw milk.

Editor’s note: The original version of this news story incorrectly identified Kimberly Ramsey’s husband. His first name is Ernest.

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