By Mark Steil
Minnesota lawmakers have introduced legislation that would allow expanded sales of raw milk in Minnesota, despite dozens of illnesses linked to the product.
State Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, said raw milk drinkers accept that risk in exchange for a product they say is healthier than pasteurized milk.
“No food product of any sort is absolutely safe,” said Nienow, chief author of the bill.
The proposed bill comes as the state health department continues to make its case that raw milk from a southern Minnesota farm made at least 15 people sick.
Despite those illnesses, and dozens of others in Minnesota linked to raw milk, untreated cows milk has a lot of believers, including some who are behind the legislation.
In Wisconsin, then-Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed legislation last spring that would have approved limited raw milk sales.
Both proponents and critics of raw milk say there is no way to make unpasteurized milk 100 percent risk free. It can even be fatal. But supporters of expanded raw milk sales say they understand the risks.
Under current law, the only place to legally buy raw milk in Minnesota is at the farm where it’s produced. Nienow’s bill would allow farmers to truck the milk into cities, sell it at private homes or in farmers markets.
Nienow said other states have looked at the issue and approved more lenient sales, among them California.
“You can walk into your local grocery store and buy a gallon of raw milk,” he said.
In California, farmers selling raw milk take extra steps to keep their cows clean and the milk as safe as possible, Nienow said.
They also must comply with additional state regulation.
“We do a sanitation inspection every three months at the bottling plant,” said Steve Lyle, a spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture. “And we test the product monthly for compliance with bacterial limits.”
Under California law, raw milk must meet the same bacterial limits as Grade A milk, Lyle said.
However, the Grade A bacterial test is done after the milk goes through the heat of pasteurization, which kills most but not always all bacteria. Raw milk drinkers say pasteurization not only kills harmful bugs but also beneficial bacteria that can make an individual healthier.
As a result, California raw milk farmers must reduce bacterial counts through measures besides heat. Their options include making sure the cow’s udder is as clean as possible before the milking machine is attached. They can also sanitize all the processing and bottling equipment, which could transmit bacteria into the milk.
But there’s one thing that is not optional.
“Raw milk is unique in that it is a food product that comes with a warning label,” Lyle said. “And in the state of California that warning label points out that pathogens contained within the milk could potentially cause food borne illness.”
Even with those sorts of measures, there are still illnesses linked to raw milk in California. Since the state’s tough coliform bacteria standard took effect in 2008, officials recorded one outbreak of campylobacter linked to raw milk. Several people were sickened, including one who developed a serious neurological problem.
In Minnesota, the state health department linked 62 illnesses last year to raw milk, including E. coli, campylobacter and cryptosporidium. Because of numbers like that, state agriculture commissioner Dave Frederickson is leery of the legislation to loosen controls on raw milk sales.
“I just see no reason why one should create a risk for consumers at this point by opening that any further,” Frederickson said.
While it is possible to contract foodborne illnesses from many different foods, raw milk is one of the riskiest of all, say officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nienow, who is talking with the state agriculture officials about the bill, said he’d be willing to accept some increase of state oversight of raw milk in exchange for expanding where the product can be sold. But so far the state hasn’t indicated any give in its opposition to the legislation.