Dairy Organizations Weigh in on Raw-Milk Sales

MILWAUKEE (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MCT) -

Two large dairy-industry trade groups have voiced opposition to rule changes that, they claim, could encourage consumers to pursue buying raw, unpasteurized milk direct from the farm.

In a letter to the Illinois Department of Public Health, the National Milk Producers Federation and the International Dairy Foods Association said they oppose a proposed state rule that would “establish a system to allow the direct sale of raw milk.”

Legalizing and regulating the sale of raw milk sends a message to consumers that drinking it is safe, when many health organizations say it isn’t, according to the trade groups.

“No matter how carefully it is produced, raw milk is inherently dangerous. Americans have become ill after consuming raw milk obtained from farms of varying sizes, from cow-share programs, and from licensed, permitted, or certified raw milk producers,” the letter noted.

Wisconsin has been at the center of the raw-milk debate, with court cases and legislation hammering both sides of the issue.

With the exception of limited, incidental sales, Wisconsin prohibits the sale of unpasteurized milk to the public, because it may carry bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses.

Raw-milk advocates say they want access to fresh, unprocessed milk that contains beneficial bacteria. They claim the beneficial microorganisms are destroyed by pasteurization, a process in which milk is heated to a high temperature to kill pathogens.

Advocates say it’s a freedom-of-choice issue, and they say the dairy industry has put large amounts of pressure on legislators in Wisconsin and other states to prohibit raw-milk sales.

For now, Wisconsin raw-milk advocates are seeking change through the courts more than through the legislative process, said Gayle Loiselle, a food-rights activist from Dousman, Wis.

Illinois regulators want to create a two-tier system of permits and inspections that would apply to milk from cows, goats, sheep, water buffalo and other hoofed animals, The State Journal-Register in Springfield reported.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration data show between 300,000 and 400,000 people in Illinois drink raw milk. Regulations are necessary to make it safer for consumption, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

“While (consumer) choice is important, it should not pre-empt consumers’ well-being,” the National Milk Producers Federation and the International Dairy Foods Association said in their letter.

Raw-milk advocates say they’re uneasy about the proposed rule changes in Illinois.

Instead of making it easier for the public to obtain raw milk, as the dairy industry suggests, the changes could make it more difficult, according to Pete Kennedy, President of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, which represents raw-milk farmers.

Currently, about 40 states allow for some public access to unpasteurized milk, although the access varies widely, according to Kennedy.