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Officials consider raw milk business

By Trish G. Graber
[email protected]

Article from Wall Street Journal

TRENTON In an effort to boost New Jersey's struggling dairy farmers, state lawmakers are weighing the pros and cons of legalizing the sale of raw milk already legal in neighboring New York and Pennsylvania.

"This state allows the sale of raw oysters, the sale of raw meat with steak tartare, we do runny eggs in restaurants, we allow all of those things and all of those things are regulated," Sen. Marcia Karrow, R-Warren/Hunterdon, sponsor of a bill to allow the regulated sale of raw milk told members of the Assembly Agriculture Committee during a hearing on the matter Monday.

Debate over the issue comes as the number of dairy farms in New Jersey has dwindled to around 100, about 10 percent of what existed 60 years ago.

Advocates for lifting the ban, which include some farmers and consumers who favor pure foods, believe it would result in increased competition with neighboring states and allow the freedom of consumer choice.

Warren County farmer Christine Salter, who manages Salter Field Farm in Phillipsburg, called it a "golden opportunity" to create a new avenue to revitalize the dairy industry in New Jersey.

But opponents say non-pasteurized milk is unsafe and could contain pathogens that cause sickness.

And dairy farmers like Margery Eachus, who owns a seventh-generation farm in Pilesgrove Township, Salem County, worries that the slightest amount of sickness from raw milk would threaten the entire industry.

"I'm afraid the media coverage will cause detrimental effects to all dairy farmers," Eachus said, recalling the recent findings of E. coli in spinach and salmonella in peanut butter. "They won't differentiate between whether it was raw milk that did this or other milk."

Tara Bowers, of Hope Township, Warren County, said as a consumer, she just wants the freedom to choose whether or not to buy raw milk, as well as other locally produced food, in New Jersey. But she said if the state does not legalize it, she will continue to buy it elsewhere.

"We're going to either go out of state, buy our own cow this is our lifeblood in a sense," she said.

While pasteurized milk sells for about $3.79 a gallon currently, consumers say they pay between $5 and $7 a gallon for raw milk and many are willing to pay more.

Joseph Heckman, a professor at Rutgers University who said he was speaking for himself, not the school, told lawmakers he doesn't want to drive by New Jersey's farms any longer on his way out of the state for unpasteurized milk.

"I really want to get it from local farmers," he said.

Pasteurization is a process that heats milk for a period of time to kill bacteria.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration calls raw milk "inherently dangerous" saying that it could contain a host of pathogens, including E. coli and salmonella. The FDA banned the sale of raw milk for human consumption across state lines in 1987. Some states, however, do allow intrastate sale of raw milk, according to the FDA.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that from 1998 to 2005, 45 outbreaks of foodborne illness involving unpasteurized milk, or cheese made from unpasteurized milk, occurred. The FDA said the actual number of illnesses was "almost certainly" higher because not all cases of illnesses are reported.

But Heckman countered that pasteurized milk has also caused illness. He said 16,000 people got sick in Illinois from pasteurized milk in 1985; three people died from pasteurized milk in Massachusetts in 2007, he said.

A Washington, DC-based group has launched a campaign for "real milk." Called the Weston A. Price Foundation, the group says that pasteurization favors large, industrialized dairy operations and squeezes out small farmers.

The group says that pasteurization began in the 1920s to combat diseases caused by poor animal nutrition and dirty production methods. But with modern equipment, refrigerated trucks and inspections, it is no longer necessary. The group says legalizing the sale of "real milk" would allow farmers, even with a small herd to make a decent living.

The measure to allow the sale of raw milk, sponsored by Karrow and Assemblyman John DiMaio, R-Warren/Hunterdon, would allow a farmer with a raw milk permit to sell unpasteurized milk directly to consumers or to retail stores. The Department of Agriculture would develop a permit program and a fee would be established to cover the cost of the program.

Testing of cattle and the milk would be required as well as semi-annual inspections of the farm.

Assembly Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nelson Albano, D-Cumberland County, said the committee will hold additional hearings on the matter.

"Our intent as a committee is to make sure that we do everything possible to help dairy farmers in the state of New Jersey. We cannot let this be a dying breed," he said. "But we also have to make sure that consumers in New Jersey have the right to purchase something they can get in any other state."

According to the Weston A. Price Foundation, just over half of the states in the U.S. allow the sale of raw milk.

 

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