States debate regulating pricey, sometimes dangerous raw milk


Kitty Hockman-Nicholas, owner of Hedgebrook Farm in Winchester, Va., feeds one of her Jersey calves. Hockman-Nicholas has been dairy farming since 1978 and runs a cow-share program in which people take ownership in her Jersey cows, allowing them to take home raw milk. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

A growing number of state lawmakers are taking up the cause of raw milk dairy farmers who are fighting to legalize their creamy, lucrative product even though contaminated, unpasteurized milk has caused dozens of health outbreaks in recent years.

During this legislative session, 40 bills in 23 statehouses were introduced that would create new, legal pathways to raw cow or goat milk, which sells for as much as $12 a gallon.

That’s up from just 12 raw-milk bills in 9 states in 2010, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“It’s the kind of milk that human beings have consumed for thousands and thousands of years,” said Sally Fallon Morell, president of the Washington-based nonprofit Weston A. Price Foundation, which is organizing dairy farmers and leading legislative efforts.

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say outbreaks have doubled over the past five years from bacteria that is not killed off in raw milk. (See The Washington Post’s full story on raw milk.)

Fallon Morell frequently testifies at public hearings on raw milk bills, seeking to debunk the CDC’s claims and those of the Food and Drug Administration, which calls the product “inherently dangerous.”

The finally tally on the raw milk bills is not yet in, but so far it appears an uphill battle is likely this year. As of last month, seven of the bills have failed, an additional 32 were still pending and one had passed, according to the NCSL.

In each case, lawmakers were attempting to either create a first-ever pathway to legal raw milk within the state or were seeking to expand legal access.

Sales of raw milk — either directly from the farmer or in retail stores — are legal in at least 27 states.

In Maryland, raw milk sales are completely banned. So state Del. James W. Hubbard (D-Prince George’s), sponsored a bill this year that would have allowed consumers to get raw milk through “cow share” programs. He withdrew the bill last week, saying it was clear that it wouldn’t come up for a vote during the last two weeks of the legislative session.

“We are forcing them to break the law because we aren’t giving them a choice,” Hubbard said.

Cow- and herd-share programs provide a way around laws that ban direct milk sales. With them, consumers are allowed to buy a share of a dairy cow with a dozen or more people. The milk they get from the cow is technically theirs, so it doesn’t legally constitute a milk purchase.

The one bill that has passed so far this year was in Utah, and it only authorized a study of liability issues related to private sales of raw milk between a dairy owner and a private individual.

During last year’s legislative session, the greatest victory was in Arkansas, where, as in Maryland, raw milk sales were completely banned. In August, consumers began buying directly from farmers although retail sales are still prohibited.

Kimberly Kindy is a government accountability reporter at The Washington Post.
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