WDPA Perspectives | Contributing Columnist

Fluid Raw Milk: The Never-Ending Battle

Brad Legreid executive director, Wisconsin Dairy Products Association

July 7, 2017


The past couple of weeks have seen a series of articles in the trade papers pertaining to fluid raw milk and raw milk cheese. These articles illustrate how these two issues are still impacting the dairy industry after years of contentious legislative and regulatory wrangling.

Due to their relevancy, I was invited to give a speech on fluid raw milk at the recent Association of Food and Drug Officials’ Annual Conference in Houston, TX, a meeting well-attended by officials from the FDA, CDC, USDA and state food and health regulators.

In my presentation, I pointed out that in Wisconsin, incidental sales of raw milk have been allowed for years. This policy meant that a producer could have small, sporadic sales of raw milk between a neighbor and him as long as those sales remained insignificant.

In 2005, the first raw milk bill was introduced in the Wisconsin Legislature. Since raw milk really wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen in 2005, only three people showed up for the bill’s legislative hearing; two representatives from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture and myself. The three of us opposed the bill and since no one testified in support, it died in committee.

Even though the bill failed, it set the template for future raw milk bills, namely that the bill only required a warning label on the jar, yearly testing on cows for tuberculosis and indemnity for the farmer if someone gets sick or dies from drinking the raw milk.

There is no middle ground in the raw milk debate. There is no place for compromise. You’re either for it or against it.

Then, in 2009, another raw milk bill was introduced. It had the same basic requirements (warning label and personal indemnification) as the 2005 bill. However, when it received a legislative hearing in March 2010, it was obvious how much had changed in four and one-half years. Rather than just three people at the 2005 hearing, this hearing had over 600 pro-raw milk supporters in the stands.

Why the difference? Because the Weston A. Price Foundation had gotten involved in the raw milk movement and put the state of Wisconsin clearly in its crosshairs since our state is considered “Americas Dairyland” and if a raw milk bill successfully passed in Wisconsin, this symbolic victory would likely cause other states to follow.

At the March 2010 hearing, there were less than a dozen of us in the audience who spoke against raw milk. Our testimonies focused on the negative fallout that could occur to Wisconsin’s number one industry if there was a major raw milk outbreak. Examples were cited of how other industries (apples, peanuts, tomatoes, pistachios) had been harmed due to contaminations since the general public tends to follow the “guilt by association” rule which makes them see the entire industry at fault even if only one or two processors were liable.

Our main point was that you cannot make an unsafe product safe, so why would the legislature approve any bill which could jeopardize Wisconsin’s economic engine and jeopardize the livelihoods of thousands of people employed by the agriculture industry?

The pro-raw milk crowd countered our fact-based testimonies strictly by emotions. They gave testimonies that highlighted the magical medical powers of raw milk, such as curing diabetes, eczema, arthritis, autism, diarrhea, impotence and many other medical maladies. They quoted pseudo-experts to back their claims of the medicinal benefits of consuming raw milk.

These testimonies clearly swayed the legislative committee members who passed the bill out of committee and subsequently the bill passed both houses of the Legislature. Fortunately, the dairy industry was able to convince the governor to veto the bill. However, a stipulation of this veto was that a committee must be formed to develop guidelines in case a raw milk bill would be passed in the future.

A committee was assembled (11 pro-raw milk members and 11 anti-raw milk members, including myself). We met for 15 months and developed a 200-page document that outlined proper sanitary procedures and guidelines for raw milk producers. Nowhere in the manual did we support raw milk. This booklet was sent to every Wisconsin legislator in 2011 and since then has only collected dust.
In each of the next three legislative sessions in Wisconsin, raw milk bills were introduced. This time around, the dairy industry changed tactics to defeat the bills.

Rather than solely focusing on the possible economic ramifications to the Wisconsin’s dairy industry, we decided to form the “Wisconsin Safe Milk Coalition” and we invited a number of state health organizations to become part of it. We focused on the public health risks of consuming raw milk, especially for young children. It’s a well-known fact that two-thirds of raw milk cases involve children since they usually don’t have a choice when a glass of raw milk is given to them.

Thankfully, through a comprehensive group effort, we have been able to halt the passage of raw milk bills in WI. But, the raw milk crowd will certainly continue their efforts in our state, as well as continue to find some successes and some failures in other states. A few things we have learned from this debate are:

1) There is no middle ground in the raw milk debate. There is no place for compromise. You’re either for it or against it.

2) Emotions rule the day, not facts. Factual statements and studies do not carry the same weight in legislative hearings as emotional testimonies.

3) Raw milk supporters only listen to their pseudo-experts when it comes to raw milk information. They see government agencies as their enemies and will not listen to what truthful and factual information they have

4) Whereas earlier raw milk bills where spearheaded by Democrats, this issue started being championed by the far right of the Republican Party with the emergence of the Tea Party movement. These Republicans believe in less government and more personal freedom

So that’s the battle we’re facing. Facts and statistics are trampled. Emotions prevail. Misinformation is rampant. Cases of raw milk illnesses will keep popping up throughout the United States every few weeks. States will continue to be under extreme pressures to pass raw milk bills.

Suffice it to say, the fluid raw milk battle is extremely frustrating and exasperating, but it’s a battle we must never stop fighting
. BL



Brad Legreid

Brad Legreid has served as executive director of the Wisconsin Dairy Products Associationfor over two decades. You can phone Brad at (608) 36-3336 or email him at info@wdpa.net

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