Safe Milk Coalition asks lawmakers to refrain from supporting raw milk bill
A bi-partisan coalition of dairy, veterinary and public health groups is working to make sure there is no bill in this year's legislative session to allow the widespread sale of raw milk in Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin Safe Milk Coalition circulated a letter to lawmakers in late February asking them to not co-sponsor or support raw milk legislation.
Shawn Pfaff of Capitol Consultants, a lobbying firm, talked about the real possibility that raw milk legislation could be passed this year. He spoke at Ag Day at the Capital, (March 6) an annual event that brings farmers to Madison to lobby their representatives in the Legislature.
In 2010 when lawmakers passed a bill allowing the sale of raw milk, it happened based on a coalition of legislators on the left and on the right, who saw it as an issue of personal choice, he said.
In the end it was a coalition that included the public health community that convinced Gov. Jim Doyle to veto the bill.
"I, like many of you, had raw milk until I was 15, so I know what the first question is that you're going to ask," he told the 450 or so farmers assembled as Ag Day.
He said that it's important to remember what pasteurization is and why it was instituted for milk. It is used to heat milk to a specific temperature for a given amount of time to reduce the pathogens in milk.
In its letter to lawmakers, the coalition cited nearly 120 raw milk "outbreaks" in the United States since 1998. Of that number the majority (86) of them came from unpasteurized - often called "raw" - bottled milk, which resulted in 2,147 illnesses and two deaths.
The numbers came from the "Real Raw Milk Facts" working group that gathered information from the Centers for Disease Control database and from news reports across the United States.
Pfaff said raw milk accounts for 1 percent of U.S. milk sales and 99 percent of the milk-related illnesses.
The sale of raw milk is legal in 28 states, but not in Wisconsin. "Why not Wisconsin," said Pfaff. "Two big reasons - one is our $27 billion dairy industry and the proud dairy heritage and history in the state."
The other is the state's strong medical community, he said. Hospitals, veterinarians, doctors' groups and public health officials joined with dairy interests to create the Safe Milk Coalition three years ago and they still feel the state would be better off if there was no legislation allowing the sale of raw milk.
Currently, only "incidental" sales of raw milk are allowed. Farmers who produce their own milk are also allowed to consume it.
For dairy farmers and processors there is concern that any problems with raw milk would affect the state's $27 billion dairy industry. "We are concerned because we care about dairy dearly."
Raw milk was a hot issue in the 2009-10 legislative session and was the last issue to be resolved during that session.
At that time, a bill to allow the sale of raw milk passed the Democrat-controlled Senate on a 25-8 vote and passed the Democrat-controlled Assembly on a 64-35 vote, with many lawmakers from the Republican side supporting it.
When Doyle vetoed the measure he said that he had listened to people on both sides of the issue but was swayed by the public health community, which was almost unanimous in its opposition to the measure.
Pfaff said Doyle sat down with officials from Marshfield Clinic and others in the public health community. "It seems a pretty risky proposition to move forward with it," the governor said then, in his veto message.
Following the veto, a Raw Milk Task Force was created by then state Agriculture Secretary Rod Nilsestuen to explore any possible ways that raw milk could be sold in the state. A committee made up of various factions including dairy companies, scientists and farmers who wanted to sell raw milk met and hammered out a set of recommendations.
The final report from that task force was published on the website of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection but no other action has been taken.
NO BILL YET
Pfaff said there is no legislative bill that has yet been proposed this session, but there has been talk that one could be introduced this fall, after the biennial budget process has been concluded.
"The political dynamics have changed significantly since the 2010 raw milk veto," he said. "Nearly 60 percent of today's lawmakers weren't around and haven't had to vote or take a position on it."
The Wisconsin Safe Milk Coalition is out there now on this issue, he said, because they want to take an early advocacy position. "Three years ago the raw milk movement kind of took us by surprise. They were flying under the radar. We never thought the state would move a raw milk bill forward."
The coalition's message to lawmakers now is that "you can't make an unsafe product safe."
A lot of lawmakers have parents or grandparents who were farmers and many consumed raw milk as kids. For some, the whole raw milk question becomes one of personal choice or "I grew up on this."
Pfaff said that in 2011 there was a disease outbreak that was related to raw milk in Racine County. Sixteen fourth-graders became ill after drinking raw milk at a classmate's birthday party and one was hospitalized, he said.
"Why would we jeopardize the dairy industry with this?" he asked.
Pfaff encouraged farmers to talk to their lawmakers about this issue and head it off before it becomes a proposed bill. "Lawmakers count how many calls they get."