Friday, July 8, 2011

Raw Milk Legislation Filed on Behalf of MA Farm Bureau and NOFA


Raw Milk Legislation Filed 

on Behalf of MA Farm Bureau and NOFA

By Brad Mitchell


Brad Mitchell, Farm Bureau
As anyone in the dairy business can tell you, there are a small, but growing number of consumers who want to drink raw (unpasteurized) milk.  These folks choose to drink raw milk for a variety of reasons– they feel it tastes better, they distrust modern food technology, they want to support local farmers, etc. 

As it isn’t pasteurized, consumption of raw milk is generally considered to pose health risks that aren’t normally, or as frequently, associated with pasteurized milk.  Because of these risks, many regulatory bodies in the US have imposed strict regulations on raw milk, including outright bans in some places. In some, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for instance, bans the shipment of raw milk across state lines when it is not intended for pasteurization or processing. Many states ban or restrict the sale of raw milk.

Advocates are challenging bans and restrictions on raw milk in courts, regulatory arenas and through civil disobedience. In many cases, producers and consumers are simply ignoring laws and regulations which limit sales. Under current restrictions in Massachusetts, raw milk can only be from the farm on which it is produced, and only if the local Board of Health allows the sale.  The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) oversees the production of raw milk through inspections and testing in a manner very similar to how they oversee production of milk destined for pasteurization. Labels and signs are also required for raw milk to help ensure that someone does not unknowingly buy and drink raw milk. While this approach has worked for years, it started to become clear several years back that this system no longer meets the realities of the current market. With fewer dairy farms and more raw milk drinkers, it’s been getting hard for many consumers to get to the farm.

Chase Hill Farm, Warwick MA
 In response, a number buying clubs popped up. Buying clubs are where consumers’ band together to take turns going to the farm and picking up raw milk. They then deliver it to a more central, convenient location for pickup by other club members.   In a few cases, buying clubs have been operated by third parties rather than by consumers. The legal status of buying clubs is somewhat nebulous. With no provisions for oversight of buying clubs, MDAR issued a Cease and Desist order to larger buying clubs – namely those which were run by third parties. This has led to something of a crisis in the raw milk community with many consumers unable to get to the farm, and many farmers uncertain about the stability of their market.

In response, MA Farm Bureau and the Northeast Organic Farming Association in Massachusetts (NOFA Mass) worked together to file legislation that would allow farmers to sell raw milk, off the farm, directly to the customer. Farmers could deliver the milk to the customer or to a designated location, either themselves, or through a contractor. The farm would be required to maintain a contractual relationship with the customer – essentially maintaining the purchase as a farm sale. In addition, MDAR would have the ability to regulate these activities, ensuring that milk is transported and stored in clean containers, at the proper temperature, etc.

This effort has wide support of the Farm Bureau membership. It has however been a little bit controversial among our membership, particularly some dairy farmers who believe that raw milk is inherently dangerous, and that it is only a matter of time before someone gets sick. Part of their concern is simply a personal belief that pasteurization is a good thing and should be embraced whole heatedly. Beyond this, there is also a concern that any illnesses attributed to Massachusetts milk could reflect negatively on the whole market and erode the consumer’s confidence in MA producers, and MA milk in general.

Chase Hill Farm refrigerated milk available at the farm
I have to say that philosophically, I am not a fan of raw milk either. My background is in public health, and I have spent most of my career working with issues around agricultural technology.  I don’t see any downside to pasteurization. I have seen some widespread impacts on markets from relatively small food safety incidents, such as with cyanide and Chilean grapes. However, I have come around in my thinking to where I think the Farm Bureau/NOFA bill is in the best interest of both consumers and farmers and public health.
First, while I would contend that the risks are higher with raw milk than with pasteurized, that is really not the issue. I suspect that risk of injury is higher if you drive a Mini Cooper rather than a Hummer, but no one is suggesting we ban Minis. The real issues are whether the risks are low enough to be acceptable, and whether the consumer is aware of the risk. Labeling and signage should largely address the issue of awareness. Statistics show that the illness from raw milk is relatively low, and occur infrequently particularly where the milk is produced legally, with oversight. Raw milk may be riskier than pasteurized milk, but this isn’t heroin!

Second, from what I have seen, bans and severe restrictions do very little to curb raw milk consumption. Many raw milk advocates are adamant that it is their right to consume raw milk and they will go to great lengths to get it. Bans and severe restrictions simply drive the trade underground where there is no oversight.  From a public health perspective, I think we are far better off allowing raw milk consumption with oversight of production, transport, etc. than driving it into the black market.

Finally, many dairy farmers are making a pretty good return on raw milk sales. Small dairy farms, which include most if not all in Massachusetts, have been struggling with prolonged periods of low milk prices for as long as I can remember. Fruit and vegetable farmers have made a tremendous comeback by selling directly to the public through farm stands, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and farmers markets. Raw milk sales offer the same opportunity to dairy farmers. This bill would simply allow them to expand their market to consumers who want their product.

House Bill - HB 1995 – An Act relative to the distribution of raw milk was filed by Representative Anne Gobi on behalf of MA Farm Bureau and NOFA Mass. It will likely be heard by the Joint Committee on the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture in the six months. For more information, contact MA Farm Bureau at http://www.mfbf.net/AboutUs/ContactUs/tabid/67/Default.aspx

Brad Mitchell is the Director of Governmental Relations for the Massachusetts Farm Bureau. He is the former Director of Public Affairs at Monsanto Company in St. Louis, Missouri Prior to that, he served from 2000 to 2008 as Director of BioSecurity and Regulatory Services at the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources.  Brad is a graduate of the Boston University School of Public Health with a Masters in Public Health (concentrating in environmental health). He was a founder of the Massachusetts IPM Council, member of the NRCS State Technical Committee and MA Commission for Soil, Water & Related Resources.  He was also a board member for Massachusetts Independent Certification, Inc., the organic certification organization.  He received the 2006 Environmental Leadership Award from the Massachusetts Nursery & Landscape Association.

NOTE:  This is the 1st of a two-part series on raw milk.  I grew up on a small, subsistence farm in Hampstead, NH and enjoyed raw milk throughout my childhood - both cow's and goat's milk.  It is only recently that I returned to drinking raw milk due to its nutritional value (as opposed to processed milk.)  And though Brad Mitchell is not a fan of raw milk, I am and often purchase a gallon at the Chase Hill Farm.  Along with their cheese, I have one comment - delicious!!
Genevieve

Photo credits - Chase Hill Farm: Genevieve Fraser

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