Louis Pasteur would roll over in his grave if he knew that sophisticated, supposedly educated modern Americans were ignoring a decades old practice he developed to keep food safe and were instead embracing a potentially dangerous raw food. But that’s just what some consumers and even dairy farmers are pushing for, in this case, the legalization of the sale for consumption of raw milk and raw milk products.

In many states, the sale of raw milk is illegal, but some legislation is being introduced to make it legal, citing everything from their “freedom” to drink raw milk to the fight between big vs. small agriculture. Speaking at the 2010 National Institute for Animal Agriculture annual meeting in Kansas City this week, David Ward, director of government relations in dairy for the Cooperative Network, Wisconsin, said there are many issues surrounding new legislation about raw milk.

Ward said 85 percent of the milk and 60 percent of the cheese in Wisconsin goes through the milk cooperative system, and that “raw milk is an issue of integrity for us.” Wisconsin has been very careful to protect its agriculture and dairy industries, he said. “The Wisconsin dairy business makes up 45 percent of our state’s $59 billion agriculture industry. Food safety is very important to use an assuring the milk we drink is safe. Most of our milk and dairy products are sold out of state and we have a lot to lose on an issue like raw milk.”

Currently, raw milk sales in Wisconsin are illegal. Farmers can consume raw milk from their own farms, but there are no sales on the open market. However, because the Department of Agriculture allowed incidental sales of raw milk from the state statute (such as buying some to make butter at home), producers have been advertising over internet and selling raw milk and milk products in farm stores on their farms.

At this time in Wisconsin, Assembly Bill 628 will be decided on shortly which would legalize the sale of raw milk under certain conditions. Ward explained it would allow a farmer with a grade A permit to sell unpasteurized milk, butter, buttermilk and cream. They will have to obtain a raw milk permit, put milk in sanitized containers and must display a sign in a visible manner on the farm that the raw milk doesn’t provide the same protection as pasteurized milk. One of the problems with this, Ward said, is that the farmer is not liable for selling the product authorized by the bill. “There is no legal recourse against a farmer if you get sick from drinking his raw milk, but there is if you get sick from drinking milk from a processor.”

Proponents say that adults know what raw milk is and accept the risks; the bill will help keep small dairy farms in business by eliminating the middleman; they tout raw milk’s “health” benefits and indicate it has a positive economic issue since it sells at $4-8 gallon (or about $48-96/cwt.). Proponents claim that large dairy farms and processors that do not want the competition have “bought and paid for” the Department of Agriculture and that’s why the Department of Ag is against it.

But Ward said it’s not a “big vs. small” issue and there are inherently complicated factors associated with this bill, such as liability. “Why should the processors live under liability laws but a producer of raw milk does not have to?” he asked. There’s also the case of leveling the playing field. The dairy industry pays money into the Dairy Checkoff which promotes dairy marketing and research. Nowhere in the bill does it discuss how raw milk sellers would contribute to that.

“In the dairy industry we have to track everything that is taken off-farm and processed,” noted Ward. “The bill does not address traceback concerns with raw milk.” Also, if it’s such an economic stimulus for the small to medium producer (remember the $48-$96/cwt.), what about the Wisconsin Department of Revenue? “We have to report our sales of milk to the Department of Revenue, even when milk prices are low,” Ward said. “What about these on-farm sales of raw milk? That is not addressed in the bill.”

The subject is a sticky wicket with proponents and opponents both within and outside of the dairy industry. The Wisconsin Farm Bureau took a position at its annual meeting opposing the sale of raw milk, and the Wisconsin Veterinary Medical Association also opposes it. But, the Wisconsin Farmers Union took a position to support the bill.

A March 10 hearing on the bill had both sides of the issues represented. “The dairy industry is very prominent in Wisconsin,” Ward said. “It’s the signature of our agriculture industry. We have a lot to lose if our industry image were to take a hit because of an illness associated with raw milk.”