June 26, 2011

Should raw milk sales be legalized?

Racine outbreak raises new questions about safety

Organic dairy farmer Vernon Hershberger has fought with state officials over the right to sell raw milk from his farm near Loganville in Sauk County. Although regular sales of unpasteurized milk products currently are illegal, a new bill would lift that ban. Kyle McDaniel/Wisconsin State Journal

Carrying a cooler of raw milk, Wisconsin vegetable farmer Brian Wickert climbs the steps of the state Capitol on a sunny April day. He is a man on a mission: to lobby for legislative support for a bill to legalize sales of unpasteurized milk.

“It’s real simple,” Wickert, a member of the lobbying group Wisconsin Raw Milk Association, says in a later interview. “We want the right to choose the food we eat. Why does the government care whether I want to go and drink raw milk? Am I so stupid that I don’t know the risks?”

For Wickert, this bill is about having the freedom to live without interference from the government. But for health officials in America’s Dairyland, it’s about potentially exposing unsuspecting citizens to disease-causing bacteria. At the crux of this debate is the age-old question: How much should government protect its citizens from possible hazards?

That question took on increased urgency this month after bacteria in raw milk from an unnamed farm sickened at least 16 fourth graders and family members at a Racine County event, resulting in one hospitalization. The June 3 after-school party was designed to celebrate Wisconsin food.

“I got very, very sick,” says Melissa Werner, 40, who drank raw milk at the event with her son, Nathan, 10. Both later suffered from nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and high fever. Werner was ill for two weeks, losing 12 pounds.

“Still, even now, when I eat, I can tell things aren’t 100 percent right,” she says.

Cheryl Mazmanian, a health officer with the Western Racine County Health Department, says while the incident in Raymond illustrates the dangers of raw milk, it violated no state laws.

“It’s not illegal to drink raw milk, it’s not illegal to give it to people, but it is illegal to sell it,” Mazmanian says.

Wisconsin is one of 11 states that prohibit regular sales of raw milk, according to the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, a pro-raw milk group.

Raw milk can contain disease-causing bacteria that the pasteurization process is designed to kill. Wisconsin law allows “incidental” sales of raw milk products to farm employees or visitors who buy on an ad-hoc basis. Those products include buttermilk, kefir, yogurt, cottage cheese, ice cream, butter and cheese.

To get around the law, in some cases, farmers create programs in which consumers become part owners of cows or farms to get a regular supply of raw milk. While some of those arrangements were condoned by state officials for several years, the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) in 2008 warned that such arrangements were illegal and began cracking down on raw-milk operations.

In other instances, people ignore the law, creating a type of black market in which consumers and farmers keep their transactions quiet to avoid regulatory scrutiny.

One of the customers is Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, one of the co-sponsors of the bill introduced in May that would legalize raw milk sales. He says he gets milk from different farms but would not specify which ones — a common response among raw milk consumers.

“People don’t want to answer those questions because it jeopardizes your farmer. It’s a screwy system,” Wickert says. “You’ve got people’s lives and livelihoods in the balance.”

The measure co-sponsored by Grothman and Rep. Don Pridemore, R-Hartford, would allow farmers to sell raw milk directly to consumers. Pridemore says he’s open to adding testing requirements to the bill, which it currently lacks.

“My main goal is to get a public hearing to present reasons to make it a better bill,” he says.

But one top official, Dr. Jim Kazmierczak, state public health veterinarian, warns that even daily testing cannot detect all contamination. Cows can shed bacteria intermittently, he says, so a negative test in the morning might not mean milk collected from the same cow in the afternoon is safe.

Last year, a similar bill with more health safeguards was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. At the time, the governor expressed concerns about the safety of unpasteurized milk, which some consumers drink for its perceived health benefits.

Like many of the roughly 15 farmers and consumers who came with Wickert to lobby, Grothman and Pridemore drink raw milk regularly.

“I drank it. I drank a lot of it, and I don’t consider it risky behavior,” Grothman says.

Public health officials disagree. In 2010, raw milk products caused 28 disease outbreaks in the United States that sickened 159 people, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Raw milk has caused seven disease outbreaks in Wisconsin since 1998, including the incident in Raymond, state health officials say. The outbreaks sickened at least 277 people; 28 were hospitalized. Six outbreaks were caused by campylobacter bacteria from cow manure that got into raw milk and raw cheese curds, causing illness but no death.

Many officials, including Mazmanian, are particularly concerned about the possibility of children, who are more vulnerable to infection, consuming raw milk.

“They were told there would be ‘whole farm-fresh raw milk,’ ” she says, referring to the Racine County event. “Now, did they understand it was unpasteurized? I don’t know.”

Werner was aware that the milk at the North Cape Elementary School event was unpasteurized but says she did not fully understand the health risks.

“I’m not opposed to the legalization, I just think there should be some testing and standards in place to ensure this doesn’t happen,” Werner says. “Because I do really worry about younger children not being able to handle being as sick as I was.”

A statement from Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s office says he would support legislation allowing the limited sale of raw milk in Wisconsin, provided certain safety provisions are in place.

“The bill would need to contain the appropriate safeguards to protect public health and the integrity of our state’s signature industry, while giving consumers the opportunity to purchase raw milk directly from farmers,” Walker press secretary Cullen Werwie says.

Ethan, foreground, Elly, and their mother, Becky Sell, visit the store at Vernon Hershberger's organic dairy farm near Loganville in June 2010. Hershberger is among those who believe Wisconsin should allow regular sales of raw milk products. He has defied orders by state officials to stop the sales. Kyle McDaniel/Wisconsin State Journal

The next raw milk state?

The raw milk bill introduced in May leaves out many safety regulations recommended in a 261-page report written by the Raw Milk Policy Working Group. Members include 22 Wisconsin dairy experts with a variety of opinions on raw milk, including academics, public health officials, and representatives of DATCP, dairy and cheese producers and agricultural groups.

The working group was appointed by Rod Nilsestuen, then-secretary of DATCP, to recommend safety regulations in case raw milk sales were legalized in Wisconsin. The group’s report, published Wednesday, calls for detailed regulations on storage, testing and sales of raw milk if they were legalized.

Under the 2011 bill, farmers would be required to post signs indicating they sell unpasteurized milk products, but they would not have to place warning labels on raw milk products or warn customers about the dangers of raw milk, as the previous bill required.

Farmers who milk fewer than 20 cows would not need to have a license or grade A dairy permit to sell raw milk. The current bill also would allow farmers to advertise their raw milk products, something the 2010 bill prohibited.

Scott Rankin, chair of the Department of Food Science at UW-Madison and member of the working group, says the latest bill is not based on science.

“This is shockingly simple,” Rankin says of the bill. “It just omits so much of all the concerns around how you handle any food, let alone raw milk.”

Grothman says he is aware the group drafted recommendations, but did not read or incorporate them into his bill. He believes the working group was biased against raw milk, but credits members for trying to be balanced.

“They did a lot of work and we’re certainly going to look at them,” Grothman says. “There’s going to be a compromise.”

Rankin says he hopes legislators will consider the recommendations and amend the bill accordingly.

“We sat for hours and hours contending with these issues and crafting policy. Ignore it at your own risk,” Rankin says. “If you decide to write this in a vacuum, that’s fine, but this is one where you need to do your homework. And the (DATCP) report was intended to be that homework.”

Passions strong on both sides of debate

There is a sharp ideological divide between those who support the legalization of raw milk and those who object. Some advocates argue the government should not limit their food choices. Public health officials, meanwhile, say the risks associated with drinking raw milk require regulation — if not an outright ban.

Vince Hundt, an organic farmer and member of the working group, says he supports the current bill without most of the working group’s suggestions.

“These are recommendations that state health officials, the dairy industry at large and professional food processors would like to see in the bill,” Hundt says. “The consumers of raw milk and producers would like to simplify it very radically and say the only stipulation is that the milk must go directly from the farmer to the consumer.”

The authors of the new bill do not believe legalizing raw milk sales poses a threat to public health.

“Most of us old timers grew up on drinking it anyway,” Pridemore says. “Natural milk tastes a lot better, first of all. Second of all, it’s fresher. The farm that I buy it from, it’s no more than two days old.”

But public health officials warn that freshness does not ensure safety. Kazmierczak says fresh milk can be infected, and the risk of contamination exists at even the cleanest dairy operations.

He says it is impossible to keep floors, milking machines and cows’ udders completely free of manure contamination. Bacteria can enter milk at several stages, including during milking, when it is piped into the bulk tank or during dispensing. Cows may also become infected by grooming one another, he says.

“I think some people … don’t have a good sense of how minute the contamination could be and still result in milk contamination and human illness,” Kazmierczak says.

A man sits at the wheel of a milk truck operated by the Providence Dairy Company, 1916. The location of the photo is unknown, but it might be Brigham, Wis. Photo credit: Wisconsin Historical Society.

Disease prompted pasteurization

Raw milk, by definition, is not pasteurized. During pasteurization, milk is heated to between 145 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit for a short period to kill rapidly growing bacteria.

Concern about unpasteurized milk dates to the late 1800s. As people moved from rural to urban areas, milk was transported longer distances and at higher temperatures. Many city dwellers, particularly children, grew sick and died from drinking contaminated milk.

Public health activists called for reform, and throughout the late 1800s and into the 1900s, state and local governments passed laws requiring pasteurization. The measures were successful. In 1938, about 25 percent of all U.S. food- or water-borne disease outbreaks were caused by contaminated milk. By 2007, that figure was less than 1 percent.

Milwaukee adopted a pasteurization ordinance in 1920, and between 1949 and 1957, the Legislature passed a series of laws requiring milk dealers to have licenses and sell only pasteurized milk, banning raw milk sales by farmers and requiring that milk sold to the public adhere to grade A standards designed to promote sanitary milk production.

The danger: bacterial contamination

Raw milk can contain multiple illness-causing bacteria, including E.coli, salmonella, listeria, brucellosis and campylobacter. One 1992 study found bacterial contamination in 25 percent of samples taken from raw milk stored in bulk tanks.

These pathogens pose infection threats particularly to the young, the elderly and pregnant women. In rare cases, bacteria can enter the bloodstream and cause paralysis, kidney failure and death.

“It’s more than just a stomachache,” Kazmierczak says. “Salmonella in immunocompromised people or children can become invasive. It can cause bloodstream infections and meningitis.”

Adds Rankin, “Healthy adults succumb to these kinds of illnesses every year. It tears your heart out.”

Kazmierczak worries children might consume raw milk without their parents’ knowledge.

“If someone gets really sick and you have a kid that’s on dialysis for six months, who’s responsible for that?” he says. “Frankly, I think that any supporters of this (bill) have to be ready to bear at least partial responsibility for any illnesses that result.”

Consumers of raw milk say it is healthier than pasteurized milk. Health officials warn untreated dairy products can contain harmful bacteria. Wisconsin is one of 11 states that outlaws regular sales of raw milk products. Kyle McDaniel/Wisconsin State Journal

New bill short on restrictions

Although the 2011 proposal requires raw milk distributors to use a sanitary container and to fill it in a sanitary manner, it does not set any standard for cleanliness. Grothman says it will be up to the consumer to find trustworthy suppliers.

“I think people who buy raw milk should familiarize themselves with the farmer,” Grothman says.

David Gumpert, author of the book, “The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America’s Emerging Battle Over Food Rights,” believes pasteurization is not as crucial as it once was.

“We understand the importance of sanitation and good animal health, not to mention that we have refrigeration and automated milking equipment, all of which reduce the chances of contamination,” he says.

Tony Schultz, board member of Family Farm Defenders, a Madison-based nonprofit that seeks to create a farmer-controlled food system, believes health concerns about raw milk are overblown.

“Every year you hear about thousands getting sick from some sort of ‘big’ food — beef, spinach, tomatoes,” Schultz says, adding he believes if consumers bought directly from farmers, there would be fewer and smaller outbreaks.

He believes the debate is really about large corporate farms’ desire to control the agricultural sector and the pushback from small farmers and consumers who want to have a closer relationship with their food.

Kazmierczak acknowledges that supporting family farms and local agriculture is “emotionally appealing.” But, he adds, “The bottom line is, the more available you make raw milk, the more people are going to drink it, and the more people are going to get sick.”

Legalization equals right to choose

For raw milk consumers, the heart of the issue is the right to choose their food.

“We want good health. We want to be able to have the choice to drink what we know is good for us,” says farmer and raw milk consumer Melody Morrell, who lives on a community-sustained farm in southwestern Wisconsin. “That makes sense to me. It’s frustrating that someone can say ‘No you can’t,’ even if it’s the healthiest thing.”

Hundt, the organic farmer, says the public should be trusted to make that choice.

“A consumer can walk to the store and buy a quart of gin or a carton of cigarettes, but you can’t buy a gallon of milk from a farmer,” Hundt says. “It’s preposterous and symptomatic of a society that doesn’t trust its citizens and abandoned the idea that people are free and should make these decisions for themselves.”

Kazmierczak responds that government regulates all kinds of risky products.

“You can’t buy your kids lead toys from China, you can’t serve them powdered milk that’s got melamine in it,” he says. “Society and government have decided that there are limits to parental autonomy, and, in my opinion, this should be one of them.”

Morrell, for one, is not worried. Her three children drink raw milk every day. She knows the farmer and the cow that produce it, and she trusts it is safe.

“I knew a lot of people growing up that drank raw milk,” says Morrell, who was raised in rural Minnesota. “And I’ve never met one person who’s been sick from raw milk ever in my life.”

  • bachcole

    Raw milk should be legal and inspected and only locally owned and distributed.

    The FDA is a subsidiary of Confinement Dairies, the dairies that put hormones and antibiotic in your milk and whose cows live 10 years less than the cows of grass-fed, pastured cows.

  • JJ

    Why people persist in taking risks they don’t understand is beyond me. There was an outbreak of a rare virus in Michigan this week also due to raw milk.

    We laud the world’s greatest scientists and inventors, like Pasteur, for making us aware of scientific risks, and then offering solutions. You know, stuff like vaccines. And then for some reason, here we are with people who have totally forgotten those lessons of the past. Why, because you’ve never seen a polio victim?

    Anecdotal evidence is also bunk, Morrell. I’ve never seen a case of Q fever in my life either, and I bet neither have the three people who developed it in Michigan this week.

    http://detroit.cbslocal.com/2011/06/23/3-sickened-with-q-fever-from-raw-milk/

  • John

    Since you guys are from the centre for investigative journalism, I might expect you to look a little more deeply into the stories you cover.

    You neglect to mention a key factor in the recent Racine County raw milk sickness event, which is that the raw milk in question was raw milk intended for pasteurization, rather than raw milk produced to the higher standard required for raw consumption.

    See David E. Gumpert’s excellent discussion of this case from June 22nd: http://www.thecompletepatient.com/journal/2011/6/22/amazingjust-as-story-of-wi-kids-sickened-by-raw-milk-gets-in.html

    Here’s the relevant section: “This is the story that was breathlessly broken by Bill Marler on his blog last week. “I expect to hear that it is part of a FDA sponsored conspiracy against expanding raw milk sales in Wisconsin. Raw milk is not ‘magic.’ It has real risks.” When the story first broke, commenters on his blog and on a food safety list serve were practically apoplectic. “There should be a FEDERAL LAW against serving raw milk in a school,” one of the hysterics stated.

    Yes, as long as he and his groupies assumed the milk was provided by a wacko raw milk dairy, it was fun to blame raw milk advocates and their supposed focus on “conspiracy” and “magic.” But once the facts of the story began dribbling out, and it became possible that the the milk was provided by a red-blooded American dairy farmer that serves the huge dairy processing establishment, well, suddenly the tone changed.

    A number of the food safety blogs published a press release that regulators in Wisconsin had genetically linked the campylobacter found in the sick children to that found on a Wisconsin dairy. But no name calling and sarcasm and holier-than-thou scolding. Instead, radio silence by the food safety lobby/anti-raw milk hysterics.

    Why did the busybodies suddenly go stone silent? It’s pretty obvious when you learn the story of what happened, as I did yesterday when I spoke with Donna Gilson, the press spokesperson at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture and Consumer Protection. (She says, by the way, that the number of sick people is up to 18. While most are children, some adults have apparently contracted the campylobacter via secondary infections from their children.)

    What happened is that a relative of a Wisconsin dairy owner stopped by the farm several weeks ago and, unbeknownst to the owner, filled a few jugs with milk from the dairy’s bulk tank. This individual went off to a public school function, where the milk was served. DATCP won’t reveal the dairy’s name, but Gilson says, “It’s not one of the farms that has sold raw milk.” This dairy is “a larger farm that has a good record with us.” In other words, it’s a member of the club; its milk is sold commercially to a processing plant that pasteurizes and homogenizes it. It’s part of the huge dairy establishment, selling unprocessed milk, often at a loss, to keep big processors profitable.

    Now, anyone who knows anything about milk production knows that unpasteurized commercial milk is dangerous. That’s why any number of people on this blog and elsewhere continually reiterate that there are two raw milks in this country. There have been any number of studies showing that unpasteurized milk destined for the processing plants has a significant chance of containing pathogens. …”

    If you’re going to be writing about raw milk you really should make a point of following David’s blog and perhaps even reading his recent book on the subject.

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  • Aaron

    The Racine outbreak was caused by raw milk that was not intended for consumption from a dairy farm that produces milk exclusively for pasteurization. It is rather misleading to compare this with raw milk that is intended for consumption.

  • Aaron

    Another important point you failed to mention here is that in the Racine outbreak, non of the victims of this raw milk poisoning were even aware that the milk was raw. It should also be considered that this raw milk poisoning would have happened regardless of any laws in place, as the milk was taken from a dairy farm holding tank without the authorization of the dairy farm owner.

    When a person chooses to purchase milk raw, they do so with informed intent and they have the ability to learn more about the conditions under which the milk is produced. These victims you use as an example had no such opportunity, and if they had, they surely would have opted to pass on that milk, as it was not produced in a manner that is considered safe for raw consumption.

  • Aaron

    How many of the 28 disease outbreaks in 2010 were also caused by milk intended for pasteurization? How many of these 28 outbreaks were caused by dairies that operate under strict regulations and take proper safety precautions?

    To say that 28 disease outbreaks happened in 2010 does not really tell us much until we investigate the details of those outbreaks. Further detailed investigation would likely reveal the reason why those outbreaks occurred so they could be either potentially mitigated in the future, or noted as unavoidable incidents, for which no regulation would make a difference.

  • Teri spoerlein

    I have raised Four sons on Raw Milk from our farm sence they were 3 months old.They have never been Ill or have any broken bones

    • Holly

      I wish the article would talk more about the health benefits around drinking organic, grass feed milk (no grain). Like the importantance of vitamin K2 which is only found in organic raw milk. Yes, we have risk but if it is done right and locally, the benefits out way the risks.

      In addition, talk about all the dangers around pasteurized store brought milk. I just don’t think people who are against it really understand how unhealthy the milk they are buying in the story really is.

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  • SharonD

    As ten states in the union are currently selling raw milk in retail markets, it is baffling why there should still be questions as to the safety of raw milk distribution in Wisconsin. You have Arizona, California, Connecticut, Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Washington as your test market examples of the safety record of the sale of raw milk. Those respective states’ agricultural departments’ monitoring data and oversight records are easily obtained. The methods they utilize to ensure the safety of raw milk, which they have obviously successfully done, is your template and example to follow. What then, is there left to debate?