In a recent column in the Cheese Reporter, a weekly newspaper published for folks interested in the cheese industry, some interesting points were made on the long-standing debate over whether raw milk sales should be legalized in Wisconsin.
Brad Legreid, executive director of the Wisconsin Dairy Products Association, wrote about a speech he gave on fluid raw milk at the recent Association of Food and Drug Officials’ Annual Conference in Houston. He outlined the history of the raw milk controversy in Wisconsin and made some observations about why the debate keeps resurfacing from time to time.
Wisconsin is one of 10 states where on-farm sales of raw milk are allowed. In America’s Dairyland, producers can have small, sporadic sales of raw milk to a neighbor, relative or friend as long as those sales remain insignificant.
In 13 states, raw milk sales are allowed in retail stores, while in four states, farmers are allowed to deliver raw milk from the farm to the consumer. In eight states, raw milk can be obtained only through “cow-share” agreements, while in 20 states, the sale of raw milk for human consumption is prohibited altogether.
Bills aimed at legalizing the sale of raw milk in Wisconsin have cropped up from time to time, but each time, the legalization efforts have fallen short.
Legreid said the dairy industry’s opposition tactics have changed over time — in 2010 industry officials said the negative fallout could be significant if there was a raw milk outbreak, while in subsequent years, a public health risk argument was used.
After one failed effort, the Legislature mandated that a committee be formed to develop guidelines in case a raw milk bill would be passed in the future. A committee was assembled that included 11 raw milk advocates and 11 raw milk opponents, and that panel met for 15 months before developing a 200-page document that outlined proper sanitary procedures and guidelines for raw milk producers.
The committee did not support the sale of raw milk, and the effort was basically a waste of time and money. The booklet has been collecting dust since 2011.
In his Cheese Reporter column, Legreid said he has learned a few things from the repeated debates about raw milk.
1. The Weston A. Price Foundation, a national nonprofit organization that has championed the raw milk cause, has put Wisconsin in its crosshairs because the state is considered “America’s Dairyland,” and if a raw milk bill successfully passed here, the symbolic victory would likely cause other states to follow.
2. There is no middle ground in the raw milk debate. “There is no place to compromise — you are either for it or against it.”
3. Emotions rule the day, not facts. Factual statements and studies do not carry the same weight in legislative hearings as emotional testimony.
4. Raw milk supporters see government agencies as their enemies and will not listen to the information they provide.
5. Earlier raw milk bills were spearheaded by Democrats, but recently the far right of the Republican Party has carried the torch for the cause under the guise of less government and more personal freedom.
“So that’s the battle we’re facing,” Legreid said. “Facts and statistics are trampled. Emotions prevail. Misinformation is rampant. States will continue to be under extreme pressure to pass raw milk bills.”
Legreid said while the fluid raw milk battle is “extremely frustrating and exasperating,” it is a battle “we must never stop fighting.”
The dairy industry’s argument that a raw milk outbreak would irreparably damage the industry was lame, since the conclusion there was that consumers wouldn’t be smart enough to differentiate between milk bought directly from a farmer and milk bought in a grocery store. If the farm-bought milk made consumers sick, it wouldn’t take a NASA scientist to conclude that maybe it’s not a good idea to buy milk from a farm, but store-bought milk is safe.
The public health argument, on the other hand, makes some sense. Officials say two-thirds of raw milk cases involve children who usually don’t have a choice when a glass of raw milk is put in front of them.
All has been quiet on the legislative front since late 2015, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if a bill to legalize raw milk sales would materialize at some point in the near future.
As Legreid said, people have strong opinions on both sides of the issue, and those opinions aren’t likely to die down anytime soon.
The Legislature would be well-advised to proceed with caution if such a bill materializes. The issue should be decided based on scientific research and facts, not emotion.