Bill Proposes Restrictions on Raw Milk Sales
(New York Times)
By JAN ELLEN SPIEGEL
Connecticut’s Department of Agriculture had learned to live with raw milk — the unpasteurized, unhomogenized milk that enthusiasts believe is good for you but that health officials have long warned can put humans at risk of disease-carrying bacteria.
The state’s raw milk regulations have been among the most liberal in the nation. But officials proposed stricter regulations after an outbreak of E. coli last summer, which the State Department of Public Health investigators traced to a dairy in Simsbury that has since closed. The department confirmed seven illnesses — including two toddlers who ended up on kidney dialysis — and said there were another seven probable cases.
“We felt we had to do something,” said Wayne Kasacek, assistant director of the Agriculture Department’s Bureau of Regulation and Inspection.
A bill under consideration in the Environment Committee of the General Assembly would restrict raw milk sales to the farm where it is produced and farmers’ markets, which would put the state’s laws on par with most of the nearly 30 states that allow raw milk sales. The bill would eliminate raw milk sales in stores.
The bill has sparked a spirited clash over food safety, freedom to choose what you eat, and small business economics.
“The Department of Agriculture seems absolutely bent on putting the raw milk farmers out of business,” said Representative Diana Urban, Democrat from Stonington, environment committee member and a lifelong raw milk drinker. “I do understand,” she said referring to the health concerns, “but I believe we have adequate safeguards in place.”
Erin Barringer of West Hartford, whose daughter contracted E. coli from a child who drank raw milk, according to health officials, is helping to campaign for the stricter legislation. “It can be frustrating at times because I think everybody’s lost sight of who the victims are,” said Ms. Barringer, whose daughter, Emma, was 2 years and 10 months old when she got sick, even though she herself never drank raw milk.
Ms. Barringer believes raw milk poses a public health threat and has solicited support from national organizations like the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which sent a letter backing the legislation. Raw milk is produced in 14 Connecticut dairies and accounts for about one-third of 1 percent of all milk produced here. Currently a dozen or so small stores in the state sell it. Whole Foods in West Hartford stopped carrying it after some of the tainted milk was bought there. The proposed bill would require stronger warning labels advising of dangers to children and the elderly. A provision that would have required farmers to pay for increased pathogen testing was scrapped after a contentious public hearing last month. Health and agriculture officials have tried to persuade lawmakers to ban the sale of raw milk altogether, but those attempts have gone nowhere in the past.
“This legislation is going to kill me,” said Lisa Santee, owner of Foxfire Farm in Mansfield Center, who said that she sells all her 100 gallons a week through 10 retail stores and that she had no place to put a store. “If you don’t want to drink it, don’t drink it.”
In trying to galvanize supporters for the February public hearing, the dairies started a blog and sought assistance from the Weston A. Price Foundation, a national organization that supports the retail sale of raw milk. The dairies are also in the early stages of forming a nonprofit organization to seek grant money for independent monthly testing and writing a best-practices manual for raw milk production.
“This is not a bribe, this is something we feel strongly about,” said Chris Newton, owner of Baldwin Brook Farm in Canterbury, who said plans would proceed even if the legislation is not approved. Mr. Newton and his wife, Mavis, bottle about 125 gallons of raw milk a week, selling about half in stores. They said they could not sell all of it out of their farm.
Other dairy owners said selling only on the farm might actually be good for their business because they wouldn’t have to transport the product.
“I spend six days a week driving milk around to stores and a heck of a lot of stuff doesn’t get done around here while I’m driving around,” said Chris Hopkins of Stone Wall Dairy in Cornwall Bridge, which sells two-thirds to three-quarters of its milk in stores.
Kim Piccioli, of West Hartford, who said her son drank raw milk from the Simsbury dairy, said doctors told her that he may have permanent kidney damage. She said that she had not been aware of the dangers of raw milk and that the milk she bought did not have its required health warning label.
“No one’s taking it away,” she said. “We’re just putting some limitations on it.” 3-12-09
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