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PD POLL: Should the sale of raw milk be legalized? [June 10]

PD Staff Published on 07 June 2011

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Yes: Eastleigh Farm is one of the last remaining dairies within city limits in Massachusetts. If not for our sales of fresh raw milk to consumers, this beautiful farm would have been lost to the pressures of development, just as has happened to so many other farms all over the country.

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In Massachusetts, dairies can be licensed by the state Department of Agricultural Resources to sell raw milk to consumers who come to the farm to make their purchases. We are one of nearly 30 dairies that do so.

During a time when the number of dairies has fallen dramatically – from 829 in the state in 1980 to fewer than 170 today – the number of raw milk dairies has steadily risen to meet growing demand. And, as proof of the economic success of the raw dairy model, no dairy licensed to sell raw milk has gone out of business during that time.

As federal milk order prices have been volatile, rarely keeping pace with the cost of production, raw milk dairies have consistently sold their milk for $6 and more per gallon.

The protocols and safety thresholds for raw milk enforced by the state are stringent, and the outstanding track record of safety among raw milk producers and consumers speaks for itself. And that’s not just because of the testing and inspections but also because of the level of personal responsibility inherent in selling farm products directly to my neighbors.

Being responsible for my product means that I acknowledge that there will always be a certain amount of risk in consuming it. Foodborne illnesses and deaths from peanut butter, spinach, eggs and even pasteurized dairy products in recent years have made anyone who produces food keenly aware of the responsibility we bear to employ exemplary practices.

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I know the risks, know how to mitigate them and have no hesitation about standing behind my product.

There is more than one way to produce clean, safe, healthy milk. Pasteurization is one, and I work with and support many dairy farmers who choose to sell their milk this way.

But with management practices that emphasize the health of my cows, modern equipment and staff who understand the importance of basic maintenance and consistent handling practices, I can produce unpasteurized milk that is just as safe.

To me, the raw milk debate is not about health or safety – hundreds of dairies and millions of consumers around the country have proven that raw milk can be produced, handled and consumed safely.

At its core, this is an argument about responsibility – the responsibility of farmers to follow practices that have been proven safe, the responsibility of regulators to balance public health issues with consumer demand and the livelihoods of farmers and the responsibility of consumers to understand what they are eating and that with every bite or sip of any product comes a risk.

Dairies are still disappearing from the landscape, and in Washington they’re talking about programs that will help staunch the loss. But I don’t want a government program that will establish thresholds and benchmarks and give me subsidy payments if the pay price goes down.

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I want regulations that allow me to control the products I produce and allow me sell them to the customers who want them at a fair price.

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Doug Stephan
Owner, Eastleigh Farm
Framingham, Massachusetts

NO: Over the past 100 years three discoveries have done more to increase human life expectancy than perhaps any other. Pasteurization, polio vaccine and antibiotics have virtually wiped out diseases that used to make growing to adulthood a game of roulette, not the highly probable event that it is today.

How many stories have we heard of children dying of pneumonia, being crippled by polio or struck down from drinking bad milk?

Any child born today still runs the risk of an accidental death, or they could die from a congenital defect or disease. But the chance of dying from an infectious disease that could strike an otherwise perfectly healthy child or adult has been drastically reduced.

Pasteurization was a major breakthrough in food safety. It was a way to safely remove the bacteria from foods that not only harbored them but also provided a medium for their rapid multiplication to a potentially lethal concentration.

The fact that it could be done without negatively affecting the food product was huge in allowing us to safely enjoy many uncooked foods – milk, cheeses, fruit juices and some egg products, to name a few. This has moved foodborne illnesses from the regularly occurring column to the very rare.

Today we have a small segment of our population who believe that pasteurization inhibits enzymes and disease-preventing qualities, that by drinking raw milk they will live healthier, more robust lives.

They like to cite studies that say farm kids who drink raw milk are sick less and have fewer allergies. However, they forget to mention the fact that the farm kids have stronger immune systems simply from steady exposure to many allergens.

We also have farmers who see marketing to this segment as a great way to increase their farms’ profitability by collecting more of the retail food dollar. People want raw milk.

This is a free country. Why not fulfill their needs and at the same time make a little money? It’s the American way.

This is playing with fire. There are several diseases that can occur in raw milk: Campylobacter, Lysteria, Salmonella and E. coli. These are infectious diseases that can kill or leave someone permanently affected.

We see stories of multi-million-dollar recalls whenever one of these pathogens is found in food products from regulated plants. Some companies have been bankrupted by recalls. Yet we are supposed to let dairy farmers sell a product that you can virtually guarantee will eventually cause serious outbreaks.

We are already seeing documented cases that are traced directly to the farm that supplied the raw milk. It is not possible to supply raw milk with the guarantee that it will always be free of these pathogens. Even the cleanest dairy ever can’t eliminate the risk of its milk coming in contact with a bacteria source (manure).

The very young are most at risk. One of those sickened in last year’s outbreak in Minnesota was an infant. Parents cannot legally withhold lifesaving treatments from their children.

We shouldn’t let them legally feed their kids raw milk. The only way to prevent this is to not allow the sale of raw milk to consumers.

We dairy producers spend millions to promote the safety of our milk supply. Let’s not jeopardize that by allowing the sale of a product that can damage the viability of an entire industry. PD

David Scheevel
Dairy producer
Preston, Minnesota

State-by-state review of milk laws:

Click here or on the image to view it at full size in a new window.

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