A bill to facilitate the sale of raw, unpasteurized milk moved forward at the legislature.
By Rose Hoban
A bill to ease the purchase of raw, unpasteurized milk moved easily through a House committee Monday afternoon.
The “Got Natural Milk” bill would allow consumers to buy a share of a cow from a willing farmer. In exchange, those people would be entitled to receive unprocessed milk from that cow.
“You buy a cow, you have to come pick up the milk, you’re essentially owning the cow,” said food-safety expert Ben Chapman, who explained that such “cowshare” bills have been popular around the country as a way of circumventing federal law restricting the sale of raw milk or its transport across state lines.
Bill sponsor Rep. Dennis Riddell (R-Snow Camp) explained that although current law forbids the sale of the milk, it is permitted to be sold for consumption by pets.
“There’s a lot of Fluffies out there drinking a lot of natural milk,” Riddell said. “But to be honest, it’s human beings that are consuming it.”
Riddell told the committee that “raw milk is a healthy, natural food commodity that has been around for millennia” and that “it is safe when handled properly, to consume.”
Other committee members agreed.
“My Grandma Pendleton gave me whole milk,” said Rep. Gary Pendleton (R-Raleigh). “She taught me how to milk, and I’m still alive.”
But Joe Reardon, the assistant commissioner for consumer protection at the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, argued that unpasteurized milk poses risks to public health due to frequent bacterial contamination.
“We … have seen the direct impact of raw milk making its way into the mouths of children … and expectant mothers,” Reardon said. He pointed to a 2000 outbreak of Listeria that sickened 11 women, 10 of whom were pregnant. Five of those women had stillbirths.
“So we’ve seen first-hand the impact of raw milk either in an expectant mother or in small children,” he said.
A speaker in support of the bill countered that those affected in the 2000 outbreak were sickened by hot dogs, not by the milk.
“Pasteurization is no guarantee,” said Ruth Ann Foster, who identified herself as a former nurse getting a doctoral degree in holistic nutrition. She cited the current issue of Listeria contamination of Blue Bell ice cream.
That company has stated the Listeria in their product came from one of their manufacturing facilities, not necessarily from the dairy products used in the ice cream.
A representative from the North Carolina Dairy Producers Association opposed the bill, citing liability risks to farmers who participate in cowshare schemes.
“The liability risk and the inability to acquire insurance to protect … assets in the event of an illness traced back to raw milk sales from that farm is an incredibly bad idea,” said the association’s Molly Robbins.
Riddell argued that there is an “increasing body of literature” available online that will “declare with scientific evidence that there are some aspects of natural milk that are removed during the pasteurization process.”
He said there are estimates of more than 48 million incidences of food-borne illnesses in the U.S. annually, citing numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but that the CDC shows only 1,300 cases of raw milk-related illnesses last year.
Chapman, an associate professor of food safety at N.C. State University, manages the online publication Barfblog, and he took issue with that argument.
“It sounds like the bill sponsor was comparing confirmed numbers to estimates,” Chapman said, explaining that the national numbers for illness from raw milk are much higher than just 1,300.
“Probably no more than 1 percent of the milk consumed in the U.S. is raw, but more food-borne illness outbreaks are linked to that 1 percent than the 99 percent of pasteurized milk,” said Chapman, quoting CDC statistics. “The risk of outbreak from raw milk Is 150 times greater than the risk of outbreak from pasteurized milk, and illnesses from raw milk tend to cause more serious disease.”
Chapman and his co-author, Doug Powell, who writes from Australia, track outbreaks of food-borne illness worldwide. Recently, Powell wrote about a raw milk outbreak in Utah – where the product can be sold directly to consumers from farms – that has sickened 99 and killed one person.
He recounted contaminations with Salmonella, E. coli 0157 and Campylobacter, with many outbreaks resulting in deaths. But he said often regulators don’t catch problems at an individual processor. He also said regulators don’t always hear about food-borne outbreaks from raw milk because consumers are reluctant to report problems related to something they obtained illegally.
Kids at risk
“There is a risk to every single food product we consume,” Riddell admitted.
“The goal of our Department of Agriculture, the goal of public health, the goal of different organizations in opposition to this is to minimize that risk. I’m all for that. But there has to be a cooperative balance between choice of a natural food product.”
Chapman conceded that adults have some rights to make decisions to put something that carries more risk into their mouths. He worried, however, about kids who are simply eating or drinking something given to them by parents.
“People can make their own risk decisions, and if they have all the information that’s good,” he said. “The increased likelihood that children get sick changes that paradigm.”
Chapman said he’d welcome some form of regulation over raw milk.
“It’s difficult to track when people are doing it under the table,” he said. “When you establish that there is a black market and there’s a desire in individuals to drink it, you wind up with under-reporting.”
He suggested some form of oversight where the individuals providing the milk would be compelled to show they were reducing the risk as much as possible.
“This bill doesn’t do that,” Chapman said.
The bill still needs to get through a House agriculture committee before it can go to the full House for a vote.