Committee says it's safe to let more 'raw' milk flow
By Peter Hirschfeld Vermont Press Bureau
Article from www.timesargus.com
MONTPELIER – Despite lingering concerns over the safety of unpasteurized dairy products, House lawmakers have moved ahead with a raw-milk bill that drafters say could bolster profits in an embattled agriculture industry.
The proposed legislation would allow farmers to sell up to 40 gallons of raw milk daily, about three times as much as they can legally vend right now. Rep. Carolyn Partridge, whose House Committee on Agriculture approved the measure on a vote of 8-3 on Tuesday, says the state's dairy farmers could use the ancillary income that raw milk provides.
"Milk prices for conventional dairy farmers have dropped precipitously … and farmers are going out of business at an alarming rate," said Partridge, D-Windham. "This was an opportunity to give farmers an added boost to their income, as well as give potential new farmers a path to get in the industry."
With hundredweight prices for conventional milk near $11, farmers are getting less than a dollar per gallon, well below the cost of production. Raw milk, meanwhile, sells for between $5 and $12 per gallon, depending on the farmer's location, the breed of cow and what it's fed.
Amy Shollenberger heads Rural Vermont, a farmer advocacy group largely responsible for bringing the issue to the fore in the Statehouse. Last year, the organization succeeded in doubling allowable daily sales to 50 quarts. Though this year's 40-gallon compromise is still short of the unlimited sales Rural Vermont initially sought, Shollenberger says the new threshold will allow farmers to increase revenue and test market capacity.
"We know of communities where demand is well above supply. We know of waiting lists of people looking to buy raw milk," Shollenberger said. "We believe there's a good market out there for raw milk, but we really have no idea what the potential market is because people have never been allowed to figure it out."
Shollenberger says the new ceiling will likely aid smaller, diversified operations more than larger-scale conventional dairies. Complying with standards included in the bill, she says, is a task better suited for small-herd farms. Even so, a substantial portion of Vermont's 6,000 to 8,000 farms, according to Shollenberger, could benefit from the new law. Vermont has about 1,060 licensed dairy farms.
"I don't think it's fair to say this would save dairy farms who are otherwise going to go out of business," Shollenberger said. "What's truer is it's an opportunity for smaller farms, start-up farms, diversified farms – farms that really are focused on direct-marketing opportunities in state."
Agriculture officials in the Douglas administration initially opposed any attempts to further increase raw-milk sales. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture David Lane said as recently as March that illnesses linked to raw-milk consumption, including a case of listeria in Vermont last summer, make it unwise to increase availability.
Lane said this week that his agency still is not endorsing the bill, but neither will the administration lobby against it. The version of the bill passed Tuesday, he said, contains safety mechanisms – including frequent testing of both cows and milk for bacterial content and disease – that allay many of the agency's prior concerns.
"It also requires regulations and sanitary standards," said Lane, noting that the agency itself will be responsible for inspecting farms and enforcing standards. "The agency's position still is that it does not support the bill … but there are processes in there that it does wholeheartedly support."
The bill creates a two-tiered system, with separate standards for farmers selling less than 50 quarts daily and those selling more. It additionally requires all raw milk sold in the state to have a label indicating that the milk is unpasteurized.
Lawmakers also have sought to ensure an educated consumer base by enforcing a direct farmer-to-buyer relationship. The bill allows for raw-milk delivery, but only to customers who have visited the farm. Customers must otherwise purchase the product on farm premises.
"I think there are legitimate safety concerns, but I think we've used regulations and standards to minimize those risks," Partridge said.
She notes that tens of thousands of Americans suffer food-borne illnesses from a variety of agricultural products, including spinach, peanuts, deli meats or tomatoes.
"To just point the finger at raw milk and say it's highly dangerous is, I think, wrong," Partridge said. "And the language included in this bill will, in fact, improve the safety of raw milk being sold in the state."
The bill, which garnered the support of 66 co-sponsors in the House, is headed to the full floor later this week, where it is expected to win approval comfortably. The legislation also has support in the Senate. However, with less than two weeks left in the session it's unclear whether the bill will make it out of the General Assembly and to the governor's desk before scheduled adjournment May 10.