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WisBusiness: State ag department cracking down on sale of raw milk as lawmakers draft legislatiion to legalize it

By WisBusiness.com Staff

As small dairy farmers struggle to stay in business, a controversy has arisen over a "cow share" program through which consumers bought non-pasteurized or "raw" milk direct from the farm.

Some of those who consume the milk and the farmers that provide it claim DATCP officials have clamped down on direct sales. Supporters of the raw milk movement fear farmers who have sold milk will be criminally charged. They also argue they should have the right to choose what kind of milk they buy, given that they can order undercooked meat and raw fish.

Donna Gilson, a spokeswoman for DATCP, said selling raw milk is illegal in nearly all cases. And she confirmed her agency has been getting tough on dairies that sell non-pasteurized milk to consumers.

She said this was spurred in part by what DATCP said was the September sickening of at least 35 people who drank raw milk from southeast Wisconsin dairies.

"DNA test results and other evidence have now established that an outbreak of illness involving at least 35 people, the majority children and teens, was linked to drinking unpasteurized milk. Wisconsin food safety officials are cautioning consumers not to drink raw milk and farmers not to sell it to the public,'' DATCP said at the time.

"Laws requiring pasteurization of milk have been on the books for more than a half century, and there are good public health reasons for that," said Steve Ingham, head of the Food Safety Division in the state ag department.

However, some consumers and farmers in the "cow share" program dispute those claims.

Joe Plasterer, of Madison, whose family drinks raw milk because of a child's health condition, maintains that "in February 2004, DATCP Secretary Rod Nilsestuen issued an order that allowed the sale of raw milk to those who invested in an entity that held a milk producer license."

Plasterer said that allowed "those of us who invested in a cow share to buy raw milk legally."  But something changed, he said.

"Apparently, contrary to the 2004 order, DATCP's current interpretation of the administrative regulation is to not allow anyone to obtain raw dairy products unless you are the farmer." Plasterer said.

Gilson said recent rule changes were an effort to clarify agency policy.  

Gilson said administrative law judges in 2002 and 2004 determined the "cow share" program was illegal. Similarly, she said "sham corporations" -- in which consumers bought shares for a small amount -- were an illegal attempt to get around rules that said raw milk can only be sold to those who have a "bona fide" financial interest in a dairy.

She said sales are also permitted to regular dairy employees, "not someone who comes in one Saturday a month to milk one cow." Incidental sales are also allowed, she said, but dairies aren't allowed to advertise direct sales of raw milk.

If raw milk advocates want to change state law, she said they need to work through the Legislature.

Two state senators from opposite parties have taken an interest in the issue. The offices of Sen. Pat Kreitlow, D-Chippewa Falls, and Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, say the senators are collaborating on legislation that would make it legal for farmers to sell raw milk.

Scott Trautman, a dairy farmer from Dane County's Stoughton who has sold raw milk, and others maintain lab testing of the milk has shown it to be safe. "Raw milk is something that family farms can do safely and with pride, and help people, support of our family farms -- all farms in Wisconsin and all business that comes from farms in Wisconsin," Trautman wrote in a recent e-mail entitled "A Message to All Wisconsin About Family Farms and the Right to Choose."

Trautman and others maintain DATCP has reacted to pressure from those who don't want the sale of milk direct from the farms because of market reasons.

The "raw milk" movement has been seen by some as part of the "buy local" movement and part of a trend toward buying products directly from the farm.

For some farmers, selling directly to consumers has helped combat a decline in milk prices and other prices for farm products.  According to the Westin A. Price Foundation, a traditional-food advocacy group, the purchase of raw milk is legal in 28 states.

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