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Raw milk proposals raise standards

By Carol Ryan Dumas | Capital Press

Content Image Agricultural Research Service

The Idaho Department of Agriculture is proposing changes to its rule regarding raw milk quality and sales, including stricter coliform standards and a Grade A facility exemption for producers with three cows or fewer.

The Idaho State Department of Agriculture is proposing to update quality standards in its rules governing retail sale of raw milk and to exempt operations with three cows or fewer from meeting Grade A facility standards, a requirement for selling raw milk.

"If you have three cows, seven sheep or seven goats, you don't have to meet dairy barn sanitation and construction criteria," said Marv Patten, dairy bureau chief for ISDA.

That new exemption should take care of the "cow share" issue, he said.

"Cow share" program sales, or backyard sales, was a means of circumventing the requirement for a costly Grade A facility and regular testing. Instead, people pay the farmer a certain amount and claim ownership in the cow. That way the farmer is not selling the milk.

"There's a significant amount (of that) going on," Patten said.

Those exempted from Grade A requirements will still have to meet animal health and milk quality criteria.

With growing interest in marketing raw milk and concerns that raw milk quality standards were too lenient, ISDA initiated a negotiated rulemaking process. Two meetings were held earlier this month, and the proposed rule was due out earlier this week.

"I'm going to make the last little bit of modifications," Patten said last week.

In addition to the exemption for very small producers, the proposed rule, as it stood last week, would retain "standard plate count" -- a measure of total bacteria in milk or dairy product sample -- at 15,000 milligrams per liter.

That number is more restrictive than the 20,000 mg/liter for standard pasteurized product. It would also set the somatic cell count for raw milk for fluid consumption at 500,000 mg/liter for cow milk and 750,000 mg/liter for sheep or goat milk. The count is 750,000 mg/liter for pasteurized product.

What was still to be decided before the final proposal was published for comment was the coliform standard for raw milk. The broader dairy industry wants it changed from 50 milligrams per liter to 10 milligrams per liter.

"Existing facilities want it left where it is." Patten said. "Right now, I'm leaning toward a compromise right down the middle," he said last week. "With everybody pretty dug in, at the eleventh hour, I'll have to make a decision. I'm trying to find the science."

Patten said the meetings went well, but it has been an extensive and arduous process.

"There is a lot of passion. People were cordial and respectful, but certainly very, very firm in their conclusions, very, very passionate in their belief and how they feel things should be conducted," he said.

The intent of addressing the cow share issue was better milk-quality control and a clean product that would allow producers to sell raw milk on their premises. They won't be allowed to sell to such establishments as restaurants, where consumers wouldn't know where the milk was coming from, but they could be allowed to sell to retail stores if the product is labeled properly, he said.

The small-producer permit requires monthly quality testing.

"They have to meet that or they can't sell the milk," he said.

Patten said there are only two licensed raw milk facilities in the state, one in Emmett and a new one in Victor.

"Until this year, we haven't had anyone (licensed) in 10 years," he said. But "we can tell there's big demand. We've had lots of calls from active producers looking to start a business."

That's probably due to low milk prices and producers seeking a more profitable market for their milk, he said.

Bob Naerebout, executive director of Idaho Dairymen's Association, said he doesn't believe there is a large enough demand to drive large producers into the market.

"If you produce over 30 gallons per day, you need have a packaging capability," he said. "And taking directly from the bulk tank, unless it is for your own use, is not allowed."

Patten said there are a couple of things that usually deter producers -- the expense of a grade A facility and liability.

"What scares most of them is the liability if someone gets sick," Patten said.

The Centers for Disease Control warn against consuming raw milk and raw milk products due to possible contamination from campylobacter, salmonella, E. coli and listeria.

Proponents claim raw milk is more healthful than pasteurized milk and say they should have the right to choose.

The Department hopes to have the finished rules published before Nov. 13, in time to be reviewed by the Legislature in 2010.

Staff writer Carol Ryan Dumas is based in Twin Falls. E-mail: [email protected].


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