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Columnist Joe Orso: Raw milk debate heats up in the Dairy State

By Joe Orso | La Crosse Tribune

Joel Salatin, a Virginia-based farmer and author, is seen in a still from the movie, 'Food Inc.,' which will be shown Friday evening during the American Conservation Film Festival. Salatin was profiled in the film because of his organic, holistic and sustainable agricultural practices.
Columnist Orso Joe


Vince Hundt, local dairy farmer, spoke about the raw milk debate like this:

Right now, with approval from the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, it is legal to buy vodka, cigarettes, drugs with warnings of side effects that include death, and a 12-gauge shotgun.

On the other hand, milk that comes straight from the teat of a cow (aka, unpasteurized milk) is not legal, or at least less legal, to sell.

"Right now, because DATCP says it is a threat to my health, I cannot drive out into the country and buy a gallon of milk from a farmer," said Hundt at a Friday afternoon meeting of about 60 raw milk supporters and state Sen. Dan Kapanke.

For those new to the issue, selling unpasteurized milk is illegal in Wisconsin. But for about a decade, with DATCP's blessing, some dairy farmers have sold their raw milk directly to people who have bought a share in the cow, and later in the farm, thus becoming part-owners.

In the past year, things have changed.

Hundt and other farmers have received letters and visits from DATCP representatives telling them they can no longer sell their milk this way.

For DATCP, it's a health and public safety issue. Although I wasn't able to reach anyone in its office late Friday afternoon, its Web site claims raw milk is "inherently risky to consume."

And it's working to shut down the Zinniker Family Farm in Elkhorn, saying that about 30 of its raw milk consumers came down with a bacterial infection.

But some raw milk advocates say the drink's many health benefits - which they say include introducing into the body beneficial bacteria and preserving the integrity of the nutrients - are superior to pasteurized milk.

And Hundt pointed that out this past week yet another outbreak of industrial agriculture feedlot E. coli killed two people and caused the recall of USDA-inspected meat.

Kapanke said he has no problem signing onto a bill that would make it legal to sell raw milk in Wisconsin, as it is in more than half the states in the union.

"I grew up on it," said Kapanke, who drank a glass of raw milk at the meeting at Western Technical College in Viroqua. "How can I sit in Madison and say you can't drink it?"

Advocates also argue it's not just a health issue.

Even if you'd rather drink pasteurized milk, they ask, shouldn't other consumers have the freedom to buy raw milk if they choose?

"Consumers want the freedom of buying food from those that raise it or produce it the way the consumers want it," said Janice Blair, an economist and farmer. "People want to pay more for their food because they want better food than what they are forced to buy in the government-controlled markets."

The small farms that have sold raw milk are hoping legislation passes after Congress re-convenes this winter. But in the meantime they are making tough decisions about how to respond to DATCP's newly aggressive tactics.

We'll see where this all ends up, and what kind of dairy state the Dairy State will be.


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