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Dairy dilemma: Raw-milk producers, consumers ask for sales to be legal

By Jim Massey | thecountrytoday.com

MADISON - About 20 people told the Wisconsin Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection board Nov. 11 that raw milk should be legal for consumers to buy and said the DATCP should stop cracking down on farmers who sell it.

Spanning two hours of public comment time, farmers who have been told to stop selling raw milk and consumers who complained they can no longer buy it asked the board for help in changing the state law that prohibits those sales.

Several farmers said they could make more money selling milk directly to consumers, and those who drink it said it has made them healthier.

The issue has come to the forefront since a September incident in Walworth County in which 35 campylobacter infections were linked to the consumption of unpasteurized raw milk. Zinniker Family Farm near Elkhorn was selling raw milk through cow-share agreements with consumers.

DATCP officials have since taken action to stop the Zinnikers and Stoughton dairy farmers Scott and Julie Trautman from selling raw milk directly to consumers. A "summary special order" was issued Oct. 18 to stop the sales on the Trautman farm.

DATCP officials said state law clearly specifies that raw milk sales are illegal. They say people can get sick or even die from consuming unpasteurized milk.

DATCP Secretary Rod Nilsestuen said the agency will consider the comments from the Nov. 11 meeting and solicit other input before deciding how to proceed.

Trautman was among the most vocal of the farmers who spoke at the DATCP board meeting.

"I do not believe the (DATCP) food-safety people have the proper oversight for this rule," Trautman said. "They've been begged time and time again, why now for this war? Why now, when dairy farmers are backed against the wall as we are? This is the difference between us surviving and not surviving.

"The spirit of dairy farms in the state of Wisconsin resides in people like me, and you're killing us. Don't say Rod that you can't do anything. I don't believe it and no one believes it. Don't hide behind these rules. You can stop it now."

Vince Hundt, who milks 36 Jerseys near Coon Valley, said farmers can sell other products directly to consumers, but not milk.

"The state really has no right to interfere," Hundt said. "We just want to be left alone. All of a sudden it's illegal. Stop immediately, or you are subject to civil fines and (you will) lose the right to produce milk at all. It's very threatening."

Hundt said farmers might get 12 or 13 cents per pound if they sell their milk to a co-op but as much as 60 cents if they sell it directly to consumers.

"It's one of the only ways the classic little dairy farm can thrive," he said.

Steve Ingham, DATCP's Food Safety Division administrator, said the Zinniker case and recent news reports that indicated raw milk sales were increasing prompted the crackdown.

"This contention that suddenly out of the blue, Steve Ingham came to town and went after them, it's not right," Ingham said.

Ingham began his DATCP position Dec. 1, 2008.

Ingham said the state attempted a pilot cow-share program earlier in this decade, whereby consumers purchased a share of a farmer's cow and were allowed to consume milk from the cow they technically owned. Farmers are allowed to drink raw milk from their own animals.

That pilot project was eventually discontinued.

Ingham said DATCP officials sent warning letters to "between 8 and 12 farmers" earlier this year, telling them to stop selling milk directly to consumers.

He said the DATCP has a game plan to prevent future raw milk sales, but he wouldn't say what the plan is.

DATCP board member Margaret Krome reminded those who testified that the Legislature establishes the laws and the DATCP board is the policymaking body that oversees their implementation.

"We're operating under a law," Krome said. "You want to allow people who benefit from it to benefit from (raw milk sales) without harming people who could be harmed by it. That's the fundamental question here. How do you balance those two?"

Ingham said the law is "pretty straightforward." But he said DATCP officials aren't aggressively looking for violators.

"I suppose (the DATCP would check the situation out) if somebody called up and said there's a guy down the road who has 400 cars in there every week, but I'm not going looking," he said.

He said he has no way of knowing how many farmers are selling raw milk to consumers.

Brian Wickert of Viroqua, who said he has been drinking raw milk for 13 years, said he and others are working with state legislators on a bill to make raw milk sales legal.

"(The market) would be astronomical in rural areas if farmers were allowed to direct-market their milk," Wickert said. He said a raw milk association is being formed to develop a workable sales program.

"We're absolutely interested in food safety," he said.

Jean Schneider of DeForest said the consumption of raw milk helped her recover from a digestive disorder. She said she was drinking raw milk until about a month ago.

"If I would like to go eat worms, is someone going to regulate that?" she asked. "I don't have a barn, so I can't milk my own cow. I would ask that this board not oppose legislation to legalize raw milk sales."

Della Hansmann of La Crosse said she wants to be able to buy raw milk directly from a farmer to help family farms survive.

"For me, it's about supporting a farmer," she said. "It's about putting $6 (for a gallon of milk) in a farmer's hands and knowing it stays in the farmer's hands."

Joe Plasterer of Madison suggested that DATCP officials refrain from enforcing the law while raw-milk legislation is being debated.

"Our big worry is by the time it's legal, everyone will be out of business," Plasterer said. He suggested a 12- to 18-month "timeout" while legislation is being considered.

Nilsestuen said he plans to seek input from staff, DATCP board members, farmers, raw-milk consumers and dairy industry leaders before establishing a plan for how to proceed.

"I would like to take this under advisement and come back next month to you," he said. "I'd like to find out what has worked and what hasn't worked in the other jurisdictions we've heard so much about. You get down to the core nuggets of science, health and risk; the question of informed notice, of waiver of liability; and the public policy issues of rural development and regulation of the state's biggest industry all wrapped together. We have to take those together and weigh them out.

"I'll do my best to come up with an approach that will work. It's not the first time this department has tried to weigh this issue. We'll look at all of it."

Legislators aim to change law banning raw milk sales

State legislators are drafting a bill to make raw milk sales legal in Wisconsin.

State Sen. Pat Kreitlow, D-Chippewa Falls, and state Rep. Chris Danou, D-Trempealeau, are among the state legislators working on legislation to change the 1957 law that prohibits farmers from selling unpasteurized milk directly to consumers. Kreitlow said he's hoping to get a bill introduced before the end of the year and hold hearings on the topic early in the legislative session that begins Jan. 19.

"We've heard from constituents who are very concerned about a (Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection) crackdown on raw milk sales," Kreitlow said. "It's pretty clear that any remedy would have to come from a change in state law. We're exploring a couple different possibilities that are still in the drafting stage that would allow farmers to engage in the marketing of raw milk while also being mindful of public health concerns."

Kreitlow said one option would be to authorize dairy farmers to sell unpasteurized milk and dairy products if they obtain a raw-milk permit from the DATCP. Signs would be required to warn consumers that the raw milk doesn't provide the protections of pasteurization.

The other approach, which Kreitlow said is less likely to be introduced as legislation, would allow farmers with a Grade A permit to sell raw milk to consumers who are part owners of the animal. The "cow-share" approach was legal on a pilot basis on some Wisconsin farms earlier this decade but has been outlawed.

"Really it's a matter of putting the onus on the consumer who would have an interest in the cow or on the farmer who sells to consumers," Kreitlow said. "We're more likely to go the (farmer permit) route and see what kind of support we get for sponsorships and at a public hearing."

Kreitlow said it wouldn't be enough to establish a system in which consumers would sign a waiver saying they wouldn't sue the farmer if they got sick from the milk.

"You have to provide some kind of protection to the farmer who sells unpasteurized milk - some waiver from civil liability if the farmer is operating in a responsible fashion. You would have to build that into the statute," he said.

Raw-milk advocates note that raw milk sales are allowed in 28 states. DATCP Secretary Rod Nilsestuen said the laws run the "full gamut" of how the sales are allowed.

Kreitlow said the only raw-milk law he is familiar with is in Minnesota, where "government will not come between farmers and their products."

"That is very straightforward protection, but I don't know if it's something that would pass muster here," he said. "I'm trusting in the well-paid experts at the Legislative Reference Bureau to do their homework and come up with language that would be beneficial."

Kreitlow said he sees both sides of the raw milk argument.

"We completely understand the need to make sure that Wisconsin remains a place with a reputation for a healthy and beneficial product," he said. "But I believe consumers who believe in the healthy benefits of raw milk should be allowed to make that choice as well, if protections and notifications can be built into the law."

Jim Massey can be reached at 608-574-8011 or [email protected]

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