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Sale of raw milk an economic and political issue

By Richard Mial | lacrossetribune.com

A raw milk movement is afoot, and it has lifestyle, economic and political ramifications.

On the lifestyle side, some people believe raw milk has health benefits - it contains enzymes and bacteria that help you digest the milks, limiting the possibility of lactose intolerance.

As for public health concerns about selling unpasteurized milk, proponents argue farm families have been drinking raw milk for years and "informed consumers" should be able to make that choice.

Proponents also tout the virtues of buying locally: What could be more local than going directly to a farmer to buy milk?

On the economic side is the plight of dairy farmers, who have been harder hit than in many years.

Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Foundation near La Farge said the economy "has never been more disadvantageous to the farmer."

While his organization does not specifically endorse the sale of raw milk, Kastel said it is "very supportive of the rights of commerce and the rights of consumers to choose. Raw milk should be prudently handled and should be an option."

The organic farm movement "has been one of the best vehicles for economic justice for small farmers, and it's under attack by factory farms and corporate farmers," Kastel said.

On the political side, a national movement has started to legalize the sale of raw milk and other products from the farmer directly to the consumer.

A rally in support of the raw milk movement is planned for 8:30 to 10:25 a.m. Dec. 21 on the Vernon County Courthouse steps in Viroqua. Leaders of national organizations sympathetic to the cause are expected to attend.

The state Departments of Agriculture and Justice have taken Max Kane, also known as Max Kane Farley, to court in Viroqua for his role in founding a raw milk club so farmers could sell directly to consumers.

Kastel said the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection "has never been friendly to raw milk," and apparently is cracking down on it.

Because of state opposition to the sale of raw milk, advocates have promoted a system in which consumers either buy or invest in a share of the cow, or the farm, instead of buying milk from farmers.

"The technical exchange after that was no longer purchasing the milk, but was a service fee," Kastel said, adding the state now is cracking down on that process.

State Rep. Chris Danou, D-Trempealeau, soon will introduce a bill to legalize the sale of raw milk to informed consumers who know the risks.

"I wanted to find ways to allow farmers to add more value to their product or capture more of the retail dollar," Danou said Monday. "Look at what farmers get when they sell, as opposed to the retail prices. There's a big difference.

"To me, the economics of it are real interesting," he said. "This allows some of these little guys to make some more money."

Hannah Huffman, a staff member for state Sen. Dan Kapanke, said the La Crosse Republican was a co-sponsor of Danou's bill.

As for the public health concerns, Danou said his bill includes safeguards.

In a guest column on today's Opinion Page, Danou wrote: "My bill in support of raw milk sales does several things. First, it requires a Grade-A permit, which provides current state guidelines to oversee the sanitary handling and storage of raw milk. Consumers will be able to buy local, developing a trusting relationship with the farmer, which will ultimately strengthen the ‘safety factor.'"

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