In a nutshell

Dairy farmers have always been able to drink their own milk straight from the cow, but it has been illegal for them to sell unpasteurized milk directly to consumers in Wisconsin since the 1950s, mostly because of public health concerns. Over the last decade, however, demand for raw milk has grown, partly because of Internet marketing, but also because in the late 1990s Wisconsin’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection allowed two farms to sell raw milk to consumers on a limited basis. The department later changed its mind.

In the last year, the department has stepped up enforcement efforts in reaction to media accounts of underground raw milk sales. In response, raw milk advocates have lobbied the Legislature to legalize raw milk sales.

The case for it

The proposed legislation only allows direct sales at farms with a Grade A dairy license that label and advertise their product as unpasteurized.

“In the end, the key here is choice,” said Sen. Pat Kreitlow, D-Chippewa Falls, who sponsored the Senate bill. “Our bill helps make that choice a safer and more responsible one.”

Scott Schultz, executive director of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, said members of his organization recently voted to support the legislation because it could help struggling small dairy farmers with their bottom line.

“It’s not like cigarette smoke,” Schultz said. “A good number of the members feel you are taking the risk unto yourself and not harming anybody around you.”

The case against it

Both the dairy industry and public health officials are opposed to the bill based on the potential risks of unpasteurized milk spreading illness-causing bacteria such as campylobacter, E. coli and listeria.

“Unpasteurized milk has the potential for people who don’t live on farms and drink it on a regular basis to have all kinds of bacteria that can be dangerous,” said Larry Pheifer, executive director of the Wisconsin Academy of Family Physicians.

For the dairy industry, that presents a potential risk for their marketing efforts. If the news reports say a batch of raw milk causes people to be sick, the public may sour on all dairy products.

“There’s evidence in past recalls that not just the product recalled is affected when people become sick or harmed by a dairy product,” said John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheesemakers Association.

To get involved

A hearing is scheduled for March 10 in Eau Claire on both raw milk bills, Senate Bill 434 and Assembly Bill 628, which was introduced by Rep. Chris Danou, D-Trempealeau. The hearing will be held in the auditorium of Chippewa Valley Technical College.

To contact your lawmaker to oppose or support the bill, use the legislative hot line, which is staffed from 8:15 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. weekdays; call 800-362-9472 or 608-266-9960. To send an e-mail, log on to the Legislature’s Web page at www.legis.state.wi.us, select Senate and follow the link.

— Matthew DeFour

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