HELENA – It’s white, frothy and enthusiasts say it’s udderly healthy — but the sale of raw milk is illegal in Montana.
That could change if state lawmakers pass House Bill 574, which would legalize the purchase of unpasteurized milk directly from small, unregulated dairies. Critics and state regulators say it could expose Montanans to serious illnesses.
Supporters of the measure say it is very much in line with a growing movement that encourages locally grown organic food, farmer accountability and personal responsibility, and they are frustrated with the government’s prohibition of raw milk.
Chris Rosenau, a retired acute medical transcriptionist from Stevensville, has been testing different anti-inflammatory diets in her struggle to ease the allergies that mysteriously sprung up a few years ago.
Unpasteurized milk, with thousands of enzymes and bacteria that nature intended for human ingestion, could make a difference in her health, she said.
But as a law-abiding individual, she hasn’t had the opportunity to try it.
“I want to choose what I put in my own body,” Rosenau said.
Along with Rep. Champ Edmunds, R-Missoula, who grew up on a dairy farm, Rosenau is the bill’s main architect. She has been lobbying to let Montanans have a legal taste of the drink as an alternative to pasteurized milk found in the grocery store, which she says is stripped milk of the essential nutrients humans should be getting.
The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 3 percent of people in the United States already drink raw milk. That comes to about 30,000 Montanans, but Rosenau says it’s almost impossible to get an accurate number, as the raw milk trade is underground.
“It’s already going on, but people are terrified of getting in trouble,” Rosenau said. “We shouldn’t be afraid of our government.”
According to Montana code, selling raw milk is a misdemeanor that could land a dairy farmer six months behind bars and has a maximum fine of $500.
Large dairy operations fear that bad publicity brought on by potential raw milk related illnesses could sour the entire dairy industry, while opponents say raw milk supporters don’t have legitimate studies to back up their anecdotal evidence.
“I believe in science,” said Montana Department of Livestock Executive Officer Christian Mackay, whose agency sends letters warning consumers about the dangers of raw milk when they post Internet advertisements looking for the beverage.
The science, according to the CDC, says pasteurization is necessary to kill bacteria such as Listeria, E coli, and Salmonella that can cause serious health problems that range from diarrhea to renal failure and paralysis.
The federal agency also says that from 1998 to 2008 raw milk was responsible for 2,384 illnesses, 284 hospitalizations, and two deaths. They estimate that actual numbers are larger, but incidences may go unreported.
Rosenau says those numbers may look scary but the CDC also reported 277 poultry related deaths in the same time period, while 237 deaths were attributed to vegetables.
Historically, raw milk was sold by inspected dairies to Montana consumers until 1998, but keeping up with regulations became increasingly costly for small dairy farmers, Mackay said.
The bill before legislators was amended to exclude any oversight from the Department of Livestock due to the price tag tacked on to raw milk regulation. In its place, the bill mandates that a warning label be placed on the product, identifying the milk as raw.
If the bill passes, a farmer who sells contaminated milk would be off the hook legally, and the consumer would assume full responsibility should any health complications arise.
Allowing the sale of raw milk without government oversight would be dangerous, Mackay said. A 15-cow dairy has the potential of exposing 80-100 people per day to dangerous bacteria, he said.
But such warnings have largely gone unheeded in the Legislature. The House passed the bill in 96-3 vote and Edmunds thinks a similar outcome is likely in the Senate. It’s scheduled to hit the Senate Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation this week.
Edmunds, who drank raw milk for 20 years, said there are inherent risks to life but “even regulation doesn’t eliminate the possibility of people getting sick,” he said.
Gov. Steve Bullock hasn’t indicated whether he would support the measure.
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