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Review of State Raw Milk Legislation 2008

The increasing popularity of raw milk has not translated into success in passing pro-raw milk legislation at the state level.  Since the Colorado legislature passed a bill legalizing cow shares in 2005, no significant legislation favorable to raw milk has passed anywhere in the country.  Unfortunately, the news for this year has not been much different.   Some excellent bills have been introduced but up to this point none have passed into law.  What follows is a summary of efforts made during 2008.

State Representative Mark Neuman sponsored HB367, a bill to legalize the sale of raw milk and raw milk products in Alaska.  Under current law raw milk can only be distributed through cow share programs.  Neuman introduced the bill in response to the shutdown last fall of the only dairy plant operating in the southeastern part of the state.  The region’s four licensed dairies have been dumping the majority of their milk ever since.

As initially proposed, HB367 would have legalized the sale of raw milk not only at the farm but also in grocery stores and restaurants.  There is currently not a state in the country that permits the sale of raw milk in restaurants.  The bill started off in the House Resources Committee and was voted through—surviving an attempt to amend the bill to prohibit the sale of raw milk from any animals that had ever been treated with antibiotics.  The bill was amended so that raw milk could be sold only to the final consumer.

The bill was next referred to the House Finance Committee where it died on March 27 when a scheduled hearing for it was postponed.  The committee had a backlog of bills to consider and HB367 became a victim of a numbers game with the legislature scheduled to end its session in mid-April.

Considering that the bill was not introduced until the middle of February, the supporters did extremely well in advancing the bill as far as they did.  Rep. Neuman’s office has indicated that, if re-elected, he will again introduce legislation next session to legalize the sale of raw milk.  The one flaw in HB367 is that it did not make clear whether only Grade A licensed dairies could sell raw milk (if the bill passed) or if the bill applied to unlicensed dairies as well.  Hopefully, the next bill will specifically provide for the unlicensed sale of raw milk on-farm, through delivery and at farmers’ markets.

For the second year in a row, a bill attempting to legalize the unregulated sale of raw milk and raw milk products was introduced.  HB147 would have exempted direct sales to consumers from regulation under the state dairy code.   This bill is a model for legislation that the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund would like to see passed in every state.  In too many states where the regulated sale of raw milk is legal, burdensome laws and enforcement make it difficult for small farmers to prosper.

Unfortunately, the House Health and Government Operations Committee to which HB147 was assigned narrowly voted it down.  Maryland is one of the most hostile states toward raw milk in the country.  FDA’s rabidly anti-raw milk Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) has its headquarters in this state.  The Center’s Division of Plant and Dairy Food Safety Director, John Sheehan, submitted written testimony against the 2007 Maryland raw milk bill stating, “Raw milk should not be consumed by anyone, at any time, for any reason.”

The Maryland state government is just as unfriendly to raw milk.  The state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DHMH) issued a regulation in 2006 expressly banning cow shares (the sale of raw milk has been illegal for over 20 years).   The Department of Legislative Services for the Maryland General Assembly provided a fiscal summary for HB147 estimating that passage of the bill could increase General Fund expenditures by $50,600 in fiscal year 2009 “related to the costs of one additional epidemiologist to investigate disease outbreaks”.  This forecast was derived from DHMH’s own estimate “that there will be about 1064 new cases of reported diseases annually as a result of the sale of raw milk to the public.”

Supporters of HB147 have said that they will reintroduce the bill next year.

Missouri law currently provides an exception to the state’s general prohibition on the sale of raw milk for farmers to sell raw milk or cream on the farm and through delivery.  There is a long-standing tradition in the state of farmers selling under this exception without a permit.  In the summer and fall of 2007, the state Milk Board issued warning letters to a half dozen farmers claiming that a producer could not sell under the exception without first obtaining a permit from the Milk Board.  In response to the Milk Board’s action, state Representative Belinda Harris issued HB1901, a bill to clarify the law governing raw milk sales in Missouri. HB1901 establishes that a permit is not necessary to sell under the exception and that the Milk Board only has jurisdiction over those unlicensed producers selling raw milk if it has reasonable cause to believe that the milk being sold is adulterated as defined by state law.  The bill has broad support and 28 sponsors.

Perhaps in an attempt to slow momentum for the bill, the state Milk Board sent written apologies to the warned farmers “for any confusion and/or miscommunication regarding raw milk sales from positions taken in previous correspondence . . .”   In the letter Gene Wiseman, Executive Secretary of the Missouri State Milk Board, states that a producer only needs a permit if he plans to sell “retail raw milk or cream at a farmers’ market or other retail venue.”  Wiseman’s letter was written shortly after HB1901 was assigned to the House Special Committee on Agri-business. 

While Wiseman’s apology did not deter the bill’s supporters from wanting the law to pass so they would no longer have to rely on the Milk Board’s interpretations of the exception, the letter did sway Rep. Brian Munzlinger, the committee chairman.   Despite having the bill for nearly two months now, he has refused to schedule a hearing for it claiming that there is no need to do so in light of Wiseman’s letter.  What is so frustrating about the situation is that the votes appear to be there in both the state House and Senate to pass HB1901 into law.

Supporters of the bill have little over a month to work for its passage.  The legislative session ends May 16.  Rep. Harris has said if the bill does not pass, she will reintroduce it next year, but this time omitting the clause in the bill that gives the Milk Board jurisdiction over producers selling under the exception if adulteration is suspected.

Under current Vermont law, raw milk producers can sell only 25 quarts a day on the farm and no advertising is permitted.  “The Farm Fresh Milk Restoration Act of 2008” (H.616) was introduced in January in order to expand opportunities for raw milk sales.  The original bill would permit unlimited sales of raw milk on the farm and through delivery.  The bill breaks new ground in the way it provides for regulation of producers selling raw milk. 

Under H.616 farmers who have been certified by a local certification committee (LCC) could sell unlimited quantities of raw milk.  An LCC is a committee composed of at least three dairy farmers, two consumers of raw milk and one healthcare professional approved by the state certification board (SCB).  For its own part, the SCB is comprised of the state veterinarian, two dairy farmers, a member of the Vermont grass farmers’ association (VGFA), and two members of the public.  The SCB is responsible for adopting rules pertaining to the production, handling, bottling and testing of raw milk in addition to promulgating regulations governing the board’s oversight of the LCCs.

H.616 provides no regulatory role for the department of agriculture (VDA), the agency traditionally responsible for the safety of farm products.  Ultimately, the failure to delegate any regulatory authority to the VDA is what moved the House Agriculture Committee not to vote on the original version of the bill.  Instead, they voted out a substitute version of H.616 that was passed by the full House and is now in the Senate awaiting a vote.

The substitute version doubles the amount of raw milk producers can sell on the farm to 50 quarts a day and also permits advertising.  Rural Vermont, the public interest group that championed the original version of H.616, has promised it will be back with a bill next year that would allow for unlimited sales of raw milk by producers.

Most bills on any subject take more than one legislative session to pass into law.  Supporters of raw milk in the four states now have more experience and a better understanding of how the legislative process works in their respective states that will help them prepare for the next session.  With the continued growth in the demand for raw milk, a bill will pass.

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