Real Raw Milk Facts

Supporters Say Unpasteurized Milk Sales Rules In Wisconsin A Raw Deal

Reporters Natasha Anderson, Steve Horn, Sarah Karon and Rory Linnane from the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism published this story about the raw milk controversy in the wake of an outbreak of milkborne campylobacteriosis among school children, and a proposed new bill to legalize raw milk sales in the state.

<!-- High resolution: 18001200258831>Loganville 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 are illegal, a new bill would lift that state ban. Photo by Kyle McDaniel / Capital Newspapers

Vernon Hershberger’s farm in Loganville was raided by state officials in June 2010 for selling raw milk without a license. A year later, Hershberger continues to sell his dairy products, including unpasteurized milk, through his shop, Grazin’ Acres.

The issue 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,” said Melissa Werner, 40, who drank raw milk with her son, Nathan, 10. Both later suffered from nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and high fever. Werner was ill for two weeks, losing 12 pounds.

Cheryl Mazmanian, a health officer with the Western Racine County Health Department, said 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 said.

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. State law allows “incidental” sales of raw milk products to farm employees or visitors who buy on an ad hoc basis. Some people ignore the law, creating a type of black market in which consumers and farmers keep their transactions quiet to avoid the scrutiny of regulators, who in recent years have begun to crack down on raw milk sales.

One of 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 gets milk from different farms but will 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 said.

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

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 said, so a negative test in the morning does not guarantee that milk collected from the same cow in the afternoon is safe.

Last year, a similar bill with more safeguards was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. At the time, the governor cited safety concerns about unpasteurized milk, which some consumers drink for its taste and 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 don’t consider it risky behavior,” Grothman said.

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

In Wisconsin, raw milk has caused seven disease outbreaks since 1998, including the incident in Raymond, state health officials say. The outbreaks sickened at least 277 people; 28 were hospitalized.

A spokesman for Republican Gov. Scott Walker said he would support legislation allowing the limited sale of raw milk directly from farmers, provided sufficient safety provisions are in place.

The raw milk bill introduced in May leaves out many regulations recommended in a 261-page report released Wednesday by the Raw Milk Policy Working Group comprised of 22 Wisconsin dairy experts with a variety of opinions on raw milk. The group’s report calls for detailed regulations on storage, testing and sales of raw milk if they are legalized.

Grothman said he did not take the group’s tentative recommendations, released last year, into account when he wrote his bill, but he’s open to amending it.

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, 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, chairman of the Department of Food Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and member of the working group, said the latest bill is not based on science.

“It just omits so much of all the concerns around how you handle any food, let alone raw milk,” Rankin said.

Pridemore insists the raw milk he drinks is safe because it’s fresh. “The farm that I buy it from, it’s no more than two days old,” he said.

But Kazmierczak warns that freshness does not ensure safety. Raw milk can contain multiple illness-causing bacteria, including E.coli and campylobacter. One 1992 study found contamination in 25 percent of samples taken from raw milk stored in bulk tanks.

Grothman said it will be up to the consumer to find trustworthy suppliers.

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

“A consumer can walk to the store and buy a quart of gin or a carton of cigarettes,” he said, “but you can’t buy a gallon of milk from a farmer.”

Read the entire story here.

Real Life Dangers of Raw Milk

Several families offered to share their stories on video to help raise awareness about the potential risks and negative effects on health from drinking contaminated raw milk.

Real Life Stories