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Associated Press, Published January 29 2011

Effort aims to simplify raw milk rules: Bills in Minnesota Legislature would broaden places that products can be sold

ST. PAUL – Some legislators say it should be easier for Minnesota consumers to buy raw milk, a position that puts them at odds with health regulators and most of the state’s dairy industry.

Companion bills introduced in the Minnesota House and Senate on Thursday would legalize direct farm-to-consumer sales of unpasteurized milk at farmers markets, as well as deliveries to private homes and private buying clubs. Current state law allows sales of unpasteurized milk only at the farms that produce it.

No action is scheduled so far on the bills, which were introduced by three Senate Republicans and four House Republicans, but they come amid a crackdown by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture on raw milk sales, including a legal battle with southern Minnesota dairy farmer Michael Hartmann. The state claims milk from his dairy near Gibbon has sickened at least 15 people. Hartmann has denied that anyone got sick from his milk, but last month Judge Rex Stacey said after reviewing the evidence he had “no doubt” the state was right, and ordered the destruction of raw milk, cheese and yogurt Hartmann had in storage.

The Hartmann case has brought Minnesota deeper into a national debate over the wisdom of consuming unpasteurized dairy products at a time when natural, unprocessed foods are growing in popularity. Advocates contend raw milk is a natural, healthy product and that they should be allowed to decide for themselves whether to accept those risks. Supporters say pasteurization – the process that kills harmful bacteria and extends shelf life – also destroys beneficial nutrients and enzymes.

But critics say raw milk is anything but healthy – it can harbor E. coli, salmonella, campylobacter, listeria and other diseases. Between 1998 and 2008, there were 1,614 reported illnesses, 187 hospitalizations and two deaths from consumption of raw milk, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

Across the border in Wisconsin, Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed a bill last year that would have allowed farmers to sell raw milk directly to consumers on their farms. He said he wanted to protect public health and was concerned about any outbreak of illnesses from unpasteurized milk could affect the $26 billion dairy industry in the state that bills itself as “America’s Dairyland.”

Wisconsin allows incidental sales of raw milk, but dairy farmers who supported the bill said the state was cracking down on anyone who sold to regular customers or more than a few occasional gallons.

Around 19 states allow direct sales of raw milk from dairy farmers to individuals, while nine other states permit retail sales. Measures to liberalize rules are under consideration in several other states.

Supporters of the bills held a news conference at the Minnesota Capitol on Friday. Raw milk consumers and the bills’ sponsors said the current state law interferes with consumers’ freedom of choice.

“We are about removing unnecessary restrictions in our state, and this is one way to do it,” said Rep. Bob Barrett, R-Schafer,

Minnesota’s crackdown has largely ended what the state says are illegal deliveries and sales of raw milk at Twin Cities drop sites. Raw milk supporter Greg Schmidt of St. Paul said many consumers are now driving several hours to a farm to get unpasteurized milk.

“This is a legal product in the state,” Schmidt told Minnesota Public Radio. “But this burden that forces consumers to go to the farm to procure it just doesn’t make any sense on any level.”

Bob Lefebvre, executive director of the Minnesota Milk Producers Association, which represents dairy farmers who pasteurize their milk, told MPR any easing of restrictions on raw milk sales would be dangerous. If anything, he said, the state should tighten regulation of raw milk even more. He said any farms selling it should be regularly inspected and tested by the state. They aren’t now.

Commenting on the Minnesota bill, Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in foodborne illness cases, wrote on his blog Thursday that while he would never let his children drink raw milk, he wouldn’t advocate banning it either.

Marler wrote that it should be sold only on farms that are certified by the state and inspected and tested regularly, not in grocery stores or across state lines. He said farms should also be required to have insurance coverage sufficient to cover reasonable damages to their customers. And he said strongly worded warning signs should be mandatory on the bottles and at the point-of-purchase.