Raw Milk — to sell or not to sell?

House File 394 is a bill that would allow dairy farmers to sell raw milk to folks who come out to their farms to purchase it, or who arrange to have it delivered directly to their homes (i.e., still couldn’t sell it in stores).  I’m not sure why this bill was assigned to the Judiciary Committee, since it doesn’t seem to have much to do with anything judicial; however, it was, and it passed out of subcommittee a few weeks ago, and we may or may not be voting on it in the full Judiciary committee this week (since if we don’t, it’s dead, for this session at least) — and oh my goodness, I have received so many emails from people who really want this bill to become law.  Polite emails, respectfully requesting to be allowed to purchase raw milk legally, as opposed to illegally, which I suspect is what is currently happening.

And even though pretty much every  Iowa health agency is registered in opposition to the bill, I’m leaning pretty strongly towards a yes vote. I realize that raw milk, if not handled and stored properly, can become infected with e. coli, and people who drink it can become extremely sick, and even die. But that can and does happen with all sorts of food — e.g., meat, bean sprouts, eggs — and we still allow those foods to be sold in stores, right? And we let people buy cigarettes, and smoke them around their children, even though we know that’s unquestionably unhealthy. And we let people (like me) purchase and feed their kids lots of high fat/high sugar foods, day after day, even though we know that’s unhealthy. And we let people ride motorcycles w/out helmets, and we let kids ride bicycles w/out helmets, despite the fact that it’s probably hard to argue that requiring helmets would save at least a few lives each year.

So to me, it seems a bit hypocritical to get all worked up over allowing a small number of dairy farmers to sell raw milk to the relatively small number of people who really want to buy raw milk.  There are no known deaths in Iowa associated with raw milk, despite the fact that people have been drinking it for years.  I’ve heard from many people (including my dad) who grew up on farms drinking raw milk and never had any problems, and I’ve heard from  many current farmers whose children drink only raw milk (which is perfectly legal, since they own the cows) and their kids are doing just fine. And the folks who want to be able to buy raw milk legally are really upset that the government refuses to trust them to do the risk/benefit analysis for themselves, like we allow people to do w/cigarettes, or alcohol, or motorcycle/bike helmets.

There have been a few amendments suggested — one that would require a label on bottles of raw milk warning about the possibility of sickness of death (like on cigarette packages), and one that would require that folks drive out to the farms to purchase the raw milk (i.e., no delivery).  Those are both reasonable ideas, and the raw milk proponents with whom I have discussed the amendments are fine with them. And I must say, they sure seem to be a very reasonable group — they understand and acknowledge the health concerns being voiced by the bill’s opponents, but they’ve done their research and they have chosen to side with the farmers, scientists and researchers (including former Secretary of Agriculture candidate Francis Thicke) who believe that the benefits of raw milk outweigh the potential harm. And I think freedom of choice is a good thing, most of the time, and that the government should avoid micro-managing what we put into (or take out of) our bodies, when possible. 

Not that I have any desire whatsoever to purchase and/or drink raw milk (except possibly in the form of a milk shake, although probably not even then). But as long as those who do are informed of and understand the possible risks, then I think their decision to do so should be between themselves, their family, and their local dairy farmer.


About Representative Mary Wolfe

Part time attorney; full time State Representative for Iowa House District 98 (East Clinton County)
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4 Responses to Raw Milk — to sell or not to sell?

  1. Raybe1 says:

    I think that if people want to drink raw (unpasteurized) milk, they should be allowed to. I think that just warning people of what the dangers might be is more than enough. It is time that government stop acting like a nanny and start allowing citizens to decide what is best for themselves. Man survived for centuries before pasteurization.

  2. sally ann says:

    Mary, I’d vote no.

    If there were a way to ensure that only non-pregnant adults consumed raw milk, I’d lean more towards a yes. But unfortunately you can’t stop wellmeaning people from giving potentially contaminated milk to children if it’s available. I’d liken it to selling improperly canned foods, or being cavalier about serving improperly home-canned foods to guests. Sure, lots of the time you’ll get lucky. But when you aren’t lucky, the consequences are severe, sometimes lethal. E. coli isn’t the only bacterium that enjoys milk; there are other dangerous bacteria that live in untreated milk.

    We have an FDA and controls on food not to make food perfectly safe, but to lower the risk of contamination. That’s all you can do: lower the risk. You can lower it substantially, though, by canning properly, pasteurizing, keeping facilities clean, etc.

    I just googled “raw milk bacteria” and this came up on the front page, a story about a spike in Campylobacter contamination cases in Pennsylvania: http://www.eveningsun.com/localnews/ci_19882564 Apparently it’s a problem in Maryland, too.

    This abstract will give you some idea of what a good medium milk is for various kinds of bacteria: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1976296/

    As for farm kids drinking raw milk — I have no science on hand to back this up, but since farm kids grow up around the usual contaminants, it may be that they have more resistance to those bacteria. It’s also likely that they’re drinking the milk almost as soon as it comes out of the cow, without a storage lag that allows the bacteria to breed. You have to remember that some of these bacteria divide every 20 minutes or so, meaning their colony growth rate is just tremendous, and milk is an excellent growth medium.

  3. Cynthia says:

    Please vote yes, I raise meat goats but invariably my customers seeing that my does are dairy ask to buy the milk and I explain I cant because it isn’t legal. Apparently they have bought it from the Amish who openly sell it with no regard to the consequences if caught. Farmers do know how to properly handle the products they raise and raw milk is safer than lettuce. We have come along way since the days when it was a problem with knowledge of bacteria and safe milk handling practices. This should be a choice. I use raw milk here and find it had caused no problems whatsoever, but then I do own the source. With feed costs so high I want to be able to sell it to those who request it.

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