The debate over the legality of raw milk sales continues to stir discussions among legislators, public health officials, and consumers across the United States. Raw milk, which is milk that has not undergone pasteurization to kill harmful bacteria, remains a contentious issue because of its associated health risks and raw milk advocates’ arguments about the benefits.

While federal law prohibits interstate sales of raw milk, regulations vary widely across states, with some permitting its sale under strict conditions. The ongoing debate between consumer choice and food safety persists, even as outbreaks associated with raw milk consumption persist.

Recent legislation and history of raw milk
In recent legislative sessions, states like West Virginia and Colorado have witnessed proposals to alter regulations surrounding raw milk sales. In West Virginia, Republican Delegate Michael Hornby introduced House Bill 4911, advocating for the sale of unpasteurized raw milk, albeit with stringent labeling requirements. Another bill, House Bill 4736, known as the West Virginia Farm Fresh Dairy Act, seeks to expand the sale of raw milk directly between producers and consumers while implementing regulatory measures to ensure compliance with safety standards.

Similarly, in Colorado, Senate Bill 24-043, sponsored by Democrat Sen. Dylan Roberts, aims to allow direct sales of raw milk to consumers under specific labeling, storage, and transportation guidelines. Despite bipartisan support, the bill’s progress in the legislature remains uncertain.

Government involvement in milk safety is nothing new, since the early 1900s public health advocates have pushed regulations to address the widespread illnesses, especially among children, caused by unsanitary milk production and distribution practices. Beginning in urban centers and eventually extending nationwide, regulations were established to ensure milk safety, with courts affirming the government’s authority to enforce such measures in the interest of public health. In 1987 the FDA enacted regulations mandating the pasteurization of milk for direct human consumption in interstate commerce.

Despite concerted efforts to implement comprehensive bans on raw milk sales, challenges persisted. 

State-by-state: A complex regulatory landscape
As of the publication of this article, as many as 19 states allow retail sales of raw milk but impose stringent testing requirements and mandatory warning labels. In addition to retail sales, 14 states allow on-farm sales directly to consumers. However, the laws governing the sale of raw milk vary significantly from state to state, resulting in a complex regulatory landscape. For instance, raw milk sales in Mississippi are strictly prohibited; however, incidental sales of raw goat milk from small farms to consumers are permitted under specific conditions, despite advertising restrictions. This nuanced approach reflects the intricacies of state regulations, as raw goat milk is treated differently from raw cow milk, leading to challenges in categorizing its legality.

Similarly, in Nevada, while raw milk sales are technically allowed in the state, producers must adhere to standards established by county raw milk commissions. Yet, the absence of such commissions across all counties effectively bans raw milk sales statewide. These examples underscore the difficulty in making sweeping statements about the legal status of raw milk sales, as each state navigates its own set of regulations, leading to variations in interpretation and implementation.

Benefits vs. Risks
The debate surrounding raw milk revolves around the associated health risks and purported benefits. Raw milk advocates argue that raw milk retains essential nutrients and beneficial bacteria that are destroyed during pasteurization. However, health officials caution against its consumption because of the potential for contamination with harmful pathogens such as Campylobacter, E. coli, and Salmonella.

A Campaign for “Real Milk,” an activist group that promotes the consumption of raw milk from pasture-fed animals, argues that raw milk is safe to consume because of its bioactive components that they claim kill pathogens, prevent pathogen absorption, and strengthen the immune system. They state that raw milk from pasture-raised cows is a safe and nutritious alternative, to the potential risks associated with industrial dairy practices. According to the campaign, pasteurization and other treatment methods remove key nutrients and vitamins.

The campaign emphasizes supporting small, independent farms and rural prosperity through raw milk purchases and positions raw milk as an ideal food for individuals of all ages, particularly children and the elderly.

Public health officials however say the risks far outweigh the benefits. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), from 2013 through 2018, there were 75 outbreaks linked to raw milk, resulting in 675 illnesses and 98 hospitalizations. These outbreaks were primarily caused by Campylobacter, Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, or Salmonella. Raw milk-related outbreaks often affect individuals aged 19 or younger. Furthermore, of the 74 outbreaks that occurred within a single state, 58 (78%) were in states permitting the sale of unpasteurized milk.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises against the consumption of raw milk, particularly for vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, pregnant women, and individuals with weakened immune systems. These groups are at higher risk of developing severe or life-threatening complications from foodborne illnesses transmitted through raw milk.

As the debate over raw milk legislation continues, policymakers face balancing consumer choice with public health concerns. The outcome of legislative initiatives in states like West Virginia and Colorado may influence future discussions and decisions regarding raw milk sales nationwide. Meanwhile, consumers are encouraged by local, state and federal health officials to prioritize food safety by opting for pasteurized milk and dairy products to reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses.

Legal Status of raw milk sales by state:

StateTotal BansOn-Farm Sales Directly to ConsumersRetail Sales with Strict Requirements
New HampshireYes
New JerseyYes
New MexicoYes
New YorkYes
North CarolinaYes
North DakotaYes
Rhode IslandYes
South CarolinaYes
South DakotaYes
Washington D.C.Yes
West VirginiaYes
Correction — The original version of this story incorrectly stated the status of sales in New York. Only on-farm sales are allowed.

Please note: This chart provides a snapshot of the legal status of raw milk sales in various states as of the posting of this story. It is also important to remember that the laws governing the sale of raw milk vary significantly from state to state, even within these categories. Regulations may be subject to change, and consumers are advised to consult local authorities for the most up-to-date information.

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