Bill would abolish limits on raw milk

(Barre Times Argus, VT)

By Peter Hirschfeld


Lawmakers this session will consider abolishing a limit on raw milk sales that some industry experts blame for stifling a niche dairy market.

Administration officials, however, say the public health hazards posed by unpasteurized milk outweigh whatever financial benefits farmers stand to gain.

A compromise measure last year doubled allowable daily sales of raw milk from 25 quarts to 50 quarts. Amy Shollenberger, head of Rural Vermont, says many farmers are already bumping against the new ceiling.

"There's a market out there, and this bill gives farmers an opportunity to develop that market and to make a business plan that's right for their farm and for their community," Shollenberger says.

The commodity price of milk has plunged in recent months to near $10 per hundredweight less than $1 a gallon. As farmers hemorrhage money in the depressed milk market, Shollenberger says, raw milk sales can provide a much-needed revenue stream for farms on the brink. Raw milk sells for an average of between $5 and $7 per gallon in Vermont and is sold in some areas for as much as $12 per gallon.

"Right now we know of some conventional dairies that are making it because they're selling raw milk, and really the only cash flow on some farms right now is from raw milk sales," Shollenberger says.

But David Lane, deputy secretary of the Agency of Agriculture, says undermining food-safety measures now in place could ultimately harm both consumers and farmers.

"For pediatricians, health groups, veterinarians, and farmers that aren't selling raw milk, from their standpoint they would prefer no raw milk being sold," Lane says. "Fifty quarts is a compromise that, from an epidemiological standpoint, is a level of acceptable risk."

Lane noted that last summer, a young girl fell ill from eating ice cream made from raw milk. In cases across the country, epidemiologists have traced outbreaks of bacterial diseases to consumption of raw milk.

"The dairy industry itself is concerned about the impact of an outbreak, which could taint all milk in the state," Lane said.

Shollenberger said the bill includes strict testing requirements that would mitigate any risks. The legislation also requires direct farm-to-customer sales, which, according to Shollenberger, will ensure that consumers are knowledgeable about the product they're buying. Besides, she says, the issue is about consumer choice.

"Regardless of whether there's a true risk or not, people want this product and right now some people who want it can't get it and some farmers are prevented from taking advantage of a clear demand for this product," Shollenberger says. " I should be able to decide what food I want to eat."

Lane, though, says heightened concerns over food safety generally make now the wrong time to consider eliminating the 50-quart limit.

"We're at a time when there seems to be more public concern and outcry for food safety than ever before," Lane says. "To move in another direction right now doesn't seem to make sense." 3-20-09





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