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Lawmakers OK exception for raw milk

By E.J. Schultz
Sun-Star Capitol Bureau

Article from the Merced Sun-Star

SACRAMENTO -- State lawmakers have given final approval to a bill that would allow raw milk dairies to bypass a new bacteria standard that treats raw milk like pasteurized milk.

Senate Bill 201 -- passed by the Senate during the weekend -- has drawn support from a Kerman dairy and some raw milk drinkers who say the state's limit of 10 coliform bacteria per milliliter devalues raw milk. Many consumers like the "helpful" bacteria in raw milk, saying it aids digestion and keeps sickness away.

High coliform counts do not indicate that milk is tainted with harmful pathogens. But regulators say coliform testing measures cleanliness -- and dirty dairies are more likely to harbor harmful bacteria.

SB 201, by Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, allows dairies to bypass the limit only if they opt into an alternative program requiring state-approved safety guidelines covering everything from milking to grazing. Also, dairies would have to submit milk samples to labs twice a week for testing. The results could only be used for informational purposes, except tests for E. coli.

The state Senate approved the bill by a 31-4 vote Saturday as lawmakers acted on dozens of bills in advance of the Sunday deadline to pass legislation for the two-year session. Gov. Schwarzenegger has vowed to ignore most bills until lawmakers reach a deal on the state budget, now two months late.

The state Department of Food and Agriculture strongly backs the current standards, an indication that the governor might veto the bill.

"I think the Governor's Office has some problems with it," said Assembly Member Tom Berryhill, R-Modesto, a co-author of the bill.

Florez is counting on the passionate support of raw milk drinkers.

"Over 50,000 people in California are keyed up to tee up on the governor on this to make sure he signs the bill," he said.

The Legislature and governor approved the 10-coliform limit last year. Organic Pastures Dairy of Kerman, one of two raw milk producers in the state, was surprised by the new regulation and this year pressed lawmakers to reconsider the coliform limit, saying it would hurt business.

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