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Pros & Cons of Raw Milk Bill Voiced During Public Hearing
Wisconsin Ag Connection - 03/11/2010

To pasteurize or not to pasteurize? That was the question being debated during a joint public hearing of the Assembly and Senate Agriculture Committees in Eau Claire on Wednesday over a bill that would allow Wisconsin dairy farms to sell raw milk to people who want it. The legislation is being co-sponsored by Senator Pat Kreitlow and Rep. Chris Danou. They say they understand the issue is one that stirs a lot of emotions; but feel the policy would ultimately give more freedom to the consumer to decide what's best for them.

"I want to remind the committee that raw milk is not illegal to consume, but illegal to sell under current law," Rep. Danou said during his testimony. "The goals of this bill are to create a legal and regulatory framework for those who wish to sell raw milk and those who wish to purchase and consume it."

Specifically, the measure would authorize a dairy farmer with a Grade A permit to sell unpasteurized milk, buttermilk, butter and cream directly to consumers "on the farm" with a required permit. It also requires that the containers be handled in a sanitary manner, and that the farmer displays a sign indicating that raw milk does not provide the protection of pasteurization.

He went on to say that over the past several years, numerous Wisconsin farmers have tried to operate within the existing laws--which allow owners to consume their own raw milk or incidental sales--but instead, ended up running into more government road blocks.

"Make no mistake, there is clearly a demand for raw milk, and if this bill fails, raw milk will still be sold and consumed in Wisconsin," he noted.

Kreitlow says that if a consumer wants to purchase raw milk directly from the farmer, they should be allowed to do so without government interference.

However, Randy Romanski, the deputy secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, said his agency's first and foremost priority is to protect the public's health and safety.

"We believe that these bills do not adequately protect public health and safety," Romanski testified. "From a public health perspective, we consider raw milk and raw milk products to be high-risk. Raw milk can contain several types of disease-causing bacteria including Campylobacter, Escherichia coli O157:H7, and Salmonella. These dangerous bacteria can be carried by dairy cattle--even when the cattle are healthy, well-managed, pasture-fed, or organically raised."

He also pointed out that several outbreaks of illness have been epidemiologically linked to raw milk in Wisconsin and nationwide.

"Although these outbreaks are comparable in number to outbreaks involving some other foods, the risk of unpasteurized milk and milk products is magnified in importance by the relatively small number of servings consumed," he said. "Pasteurization is the best processing step available to reduce the risk of illness."

Meanwhile, dairy farmers and consumers, as well as the organizations they belong to, were also split on the matter. Wisconsin Farmers Union President Darin Von Ruden said on-farm raw-milk sales should be allowed under 'well-managed handling and labeling programs' like those outlined in the proposed bill.

But Melvin Pittman, a Pierce County dairy farmer who spoke on behalf of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, said his group is opposed to the measure because of the 'bad publicity factor' that a possible outbreak could cause.

"If a person becomes ill from drinking raw milk, it is not only unpasteurized milk that gets a bad image, but all milk and dairy products," Pittman testified. "Dairy farmers have invested millions of dollars promoting milk and dairy products and we can't afford to have an incident adversely affect consumption."

David Ward, the dairy director of Cooperative Network, agreed. He said the state has recorded four outbreaks of illness linked to consuming unpasteurized milk or milk products since 2000, which have been responsible for sickening at least 131 people.

"Young people are often the most affected as found in a recent Walworth County case, where 21 of the victims were under the age of 18, and one was hospitalized," he noted.

Meanwhile, State Agriculture Secretary Rod Nilsestuen has recently put together a raw milk working group, which will conduct an open-minded review and discussion to decide whether raw milk sales should be allowed in Wisconsin.

Kreitlow says there are only six weeks left in the legislative session, which means time is running out if the bill is to be approved yet this year.

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