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Raw milk: Healthy or health threat?

A bill passed by the Wisconsin Assembly Apri 23 to allow farmers to sell raw, unpasteurized milk directly to consumers gets mixed reactions locally.

Limitations added to the bill persuaded her to vote for it, said state Senator Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls.

As a representative of his state organization, he spoke against the bill at the hearing, but Pierce County farmer Mel Pittman said there may be health benefits to raw milk.

She and fellow health workers are concerned about the increased potential for illness among children and people with weak immune systems, said Pierce County Public Health Director Sue Galoff.

The raw milk bill passed the Senate earlier this month and is awaiting action by Gov. Jim Doyle, who said he might sign it.

The bill would allow farmers who register with the state to sell raw milk on their farms until the Dec. 31, 2011. They are prohibited from advertising except for signs on their farms.

Farmers who sell raw milk would be required to test it monthly for pathogens and submit the results to the Department of Agriculture Trade and Consumer Protection. If pathogens appear, the department could suspend a farmer's registration.

A sunset on the law and a Legislative Council study of the issue in the meantime are important additions to the bill and helped her support it, said Harsdorf, herself a dairy farmer.

"I grew up on raw milk," she said. "But at the same time, I recognize the importance of maintaining a safe food supply."

Harsdorf is concerned that if people get sick or have problems consuming a product, "it can taint the whole industry."

The challenge was to balance the need for safe food with the wishes of consumers who want to buy a specific product, said Harsdorf.

Harsdorf serves on the Senate Agriculture and Higher Education Committee and heard testimony when that committee and the Assembly Rural Economic Development Committee held a hearing in Eau Claire last month.

The hearing lasted over 10 hours.

Harsdorf recalls testimony from, among others, a woman whose infant son was seriously ill until she began feeding him raw milk. The woman believes the natural milk cured her son.

"There's no research that would prove that," observed Harsdorf. Still, she said, many people are convinced raw milk is healthier than pasteurized milk.

After the hearing, the committees amended the bill to create a proposal that balances the wishes of people who are "so very passionate about the benefits of raw milk" with some assurances of quality, said Harsdorf.

She said it's important that the bill allows only direct on-farm sales.

"That requires consumers to go to the farm, making sure they feel comfortable with the farm that they're purchasing milk from," said Harsdorf.

Two of the state health organizations to which her department belongs testified against raw milk sales, said Galoff, "very specifically for health reasons."

While it's not always possible to pin an illness on one product, over the years there have been many illnesses connected to raw milk, said Galoff.

Raw milk has been linked to Campylobacter, e-coli and salmonella infections, she said. These infections, passed to humans often through contaminated foods, can infect the gastrointestinal tract and cause diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever and vomiting.

Nationwide from 1993-2006 there were 69 outbreaks of infections, 1,500 reported illnesses, 200 hospitalizations and two deaths linked to the consumption of raw milk, said Galoff.

Since 2000, Wisconsin has seen four outbreaks of illness due to Campylobacter infection linked to unpasteurized dairy products. At least 130 people became sick.

"It's kind of the tip of the iceberg as to what gets reported," said Galoff. Not everyone who becomes ill goes to the doctor, she said, and of those who do, not everyone is tested for the bacteria.

She added that from 1993 to 2006, other states that allow sales of raw milk have been twice as likely to report illnesses and three times as likely to see outbreaks, secondary spreads, of illnesses related to the milk.

Pittman, chairman of Wisconsin Farm Bureau's Dairy Committee, said most farmers attending Farm Bureau's annual convention in December voted against allowing sales of raw milk and the Dairy Committee confirmed that position in early March.

"They felt that there wasn't enough benefit to both the farmer and the industry," said Pittman. "That's been Farm Bureau's position."

So when he testified at the hearing, he spoke against raw milk sales. Still, he personally isn't so sure.

"I'm somewhat open to raw milk being available," said Pittman. "We drink it here on the farm."

But, he said, there should be protocols in place to protect the consumer. One he suggested to Harsdorf was that farms that sell raw milk take monthly bulk tank samples to test for bacteria.

On the other hand, said Pittman, he recently read about an elderly man in Pennsylvania who is critically ill, apparently as a result of drinking unpasteurized milk.

"There is risk out there with raw milk," said Pittman.

The issue of raw milk sales has been "on the burner" for quite awhile, he said. Pittman believes two things combined to bring it forward now: Milk prices are down so farmers are looking at ways to increase sales and a growing number of people believe raw milk is more healthful than processed milk.

"I tend to agree with some of those," he said. "The question is what risk is associated with raw milk?"

He said while drinking raw milk may have been common once, it isn't anymore, and there might be ramifications for people who've never had unpasteurized milk.

Pittman said workers on his farm are invited to drink the raw milk if they have meals during their shift. In the last six years, three of those employees have felt at least a little ill after drinking raw milk.

While they had nothing more than an "unsettled" stomach, there is some risk, he said.

"I think that's worthy of consideration also," said Pittman. The challenge, he said, is educating consumers that there could be some undesirable consequences, even if mild, to drinking raw milk.

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.

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