By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — The state Legislature could look to legalize limited sales of raw milk just months after the near vindication of dairy farmer Vernon Hershberger, who in May was found not guilty on three of four misdemeanor charges after a trial the state insisted was definitely not about selling raw milk.
The bill, authored by Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, would allow dairy farmers to register with the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to sell raw milk directly to consumers on the farm.
Raw milk proponents — ranging from real food activists to free choice advocates — hope lawmakers will overcome a bevy of what they see as nanny-staters and industry groups that want to block the legislation.
The bill is slated for a public hearing on Wednesday. Seventeen lobbying groups have registered against the legislation, including American Family Insurance, the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families and the Wisconsin Dairy Products Association. As of Tuesday, only the Wisconsin Farmer’s Union and the Wisconsin Raw Milk Association have registered in favor.
Sean Pfaff, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Safe Milk Coalition, made up of dairy industry groups, and the insurance and medical industries, said the coalition opposes raw milk legalization on two grounds.
“One, is to protect the integrity of the state’s $26.5 billion dairy industry,” he said. “Two, is the public health concerns for Wisconsin residents.”
Pfaff said that although he grew up drinking raw milk, it’s not safe for everybody. “We believe it is impossible to make raw milk a safe product for human ingestion unless it’s pasteurized,” he said.
Of course, milk is big business in America’s Dairyland.
More than 1.27 million cows on Wisconsin farms produced 27.2 billion pounds of milk in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The state is second only to California, which allows retail sales of raw milk.
One of raw milk’s biggest advocates, Mark McAfee, founder of Organic Pastures Dairy in California, said raw milk consumption is dangerous from confined animal feeding operations, where large groups of animals are kept in a small space. There are 220 permitted dairy CAFO’s in Wisconsin. On those farms, pasteurization is necessary, McAfee said.
Larger operations of 200 cows or more account for 6.9 percent of dairy farms and produce 41 percent of milk production in Wisconsin.
Still, raw milk aficionados contend the prohibition crowd uses scare tactics to mislead the public on raw milk safety. Proponents swear by the unheated milk’s nutritional superiority, while the Food and Drug Administration says raw milk can pose a serious health risk.
“The safety concerns are remote and overblown,” said Scott Karel, a lobbyist at Wisconsin Farmers Union, which boasts more than 2,000 farm households as members.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 56 foodborne disease outbreaks caused by contaminated milk occurred between 1993 and 2006. The CDC attributes 46 of those outbreaks to raw milk, and those resulted in 930 people reporting an illness and 71 people being hospitalized. The 10 outbreaks from pasteurized milk resulted in 2,098 illnesses and 20 hospitalizations.
The CDC estimates 48 million Americans get sick and 128,000 are hospitalized annually due to foodborne disease outbreaks. Less than 3 percent of milk consumed is raw milk.
“It’s safer to have this sold while being regulated, than have it being sold anyway on a black market,” Karel said. “There is a demand for this type of product and it seems to be growing.”
After the Hershberger trial, more than 100 people inquired about becoming members of the dairy farm, according to a Channel 3000 news report. Michele Hopp of Merrimac, one of the jurors at the trial, has become a member of the farm and a raw milk consumer.
According to the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, 12 states allow retail sales of raw milk. Five other states allow retail sales with strict regulations. Thirteen more allow sales of raw milk on farms, which is what Grothman proposes.
Raw milk sales are legal throughout the European Union, where some countries such as France have raw milk vending machines.
“If you look at other states and experiences they’ve had, one, this can be done safely. Secondly, it shows that the bottom does not drop out of states’ milk industry if there is an illness,” Karel said.
The milk industry claims foodborne illnesses from raw milk will taint the good name of the wholesome white drink and push consumers to use other products.
The bill has come up in the Legislature several times over the past few years. Raw milk was closest to being legalized in 2010, when Democrats controlled the Legislature, only to have former Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, veto the bill. Several Democratic lawmakers have signed on as cosponsors of Grothman’s bill.
“Groups that oppose raw milk are organized this time on the front end,” Pfaff said. “Four years ago we scrambled and got Gov. Doyle to veto the bill at the last minute.”
Karel says there’s another reason the issue remains a debate in the statehouse.
“It has been a reoccurring issue, I think there’s a reason for that,” he said. “I think it’s what the people want.”
Contact Ryan Ekvall at firstname.lastname@example.org