What could be controversial about a nice, cold glass of milk? A lot, as it happens. Right now, milk is in the news for two reasons, both of which should interest any Vermonter who earns a living from dairy. First, Pennsylvania has a new law forbidding dairies to label their quarts and gallons as free of synthetic bovine growth hormone rBST. Then there's the recent, deadly outbreak of listeriosis in Massachusetts, which has been traced to containers of pasteurized milk from an old-fashioned creamery called Whittier Farms.
This Thursday, we'll have a new, local story to think about. The agricultural advocacy group Rural Vermont has teamed up with farmers and politicians to draft a proposal for changing regulations on the sale of raw milk, or "farm-fresh milk," as the organization's bill calls it.
The legislation will be introduced in the House of Representatives on Thursday. Farmers and advocates will also hold a press conference in Monpelier to discuss the bill. By last Friday afternoon, the bill had two primary sponsors and 50 co-sponsors, out of 150 representatives total. None of those signers are members of the House Committee on Agriculture, but Rural Vermont Director Amy Shollenberger says this isn't unusual. "They're the committee who will be looking at the bill first, and signing on [in advance] means, 'I support the bill as it is,'" she points out. However, Shollenberger claims that Ag Committee chair David Zuckerman has said, "The discussion needs to happen."
What discussion? Right now, Vermont farmers can sell no more than 25 quarts of raw milk per day — approximately the yield from a single cow — and can sell only on the farm property. For farmers in the boonies, this means prospective customers have to trek out to see them. Furthermore, no advertising is allowed: Farmers can't take out an ad in the paper, put a colorful sign on the roadside to attract passers by, or offer promotional leaflets at farmers' markets. These regulations were enacted in the 1980s, following an outbreak of food-borne illness caused by raw milk from a Chittenden County dairy.
With the federal government strongly discouraging the sale of raw milk, it may seem surprising that anyone bothers to offer it. But jugs of pasteurized milk sold in grocery and convenience stores are likely to net a single dollar or less, while each gallon of farm-fresh milk, sold directly to the consumer, can easily contribute $5 to a dairy's coffers. Thing is, with the 6-gallon-a-day limit in place, the extra 30 bucks doesn't go far in helping farmers break even.
Under the new regulations, farms would be able to advertise and sell an unlimited quantity of farm-fresh milk, as well as to distribute it through pre-paid delivery agreements, making it easier for consumers to get a fix. To ensure the safety of the product, the bill sets up a program of regular testing and commits a statewide board to creating a plan of action in case of a disease outbreak.
Despite the FDA's dire warnings about raw milk — a quotation on its website compares drinking it to playing "Russian roulette with your health" — many consumers claim the "farm-fresh" stuff is healthier than the pasteurized, homogenized version. Rural Vermont's website suggests raw milk is useful in preventing tooth decay and promoting calcium absorption, whereas pasteurization "destroys vitamin B complex, vitamin C, enzymes and whey proteins and immune factors." There is also evidence that lactose-intolerant individuals can more easily digest raw milk.
University of Vermont microbiologist Catherine Donnelly, an expert on listeria and Vermont dairy issues, isn't sold on the raw-milk craze. Although she doesn't believe the government should dictate whether consumers can buy it, she isn't convinced that the purported benefits outweigh the risks. "Listeria kills one-third of the people it infects," Donnelly says. "Is a young child in a position to make that choice? Is an elderly person?" She's also worried about the financial impact of a potential outbreak on our state. "From a public health standpoint," she wonders, "will this put any extra stress on Vermont's health-care system and increase costs?"
Finally, Donnelly fears that the legislative effort to ease regulations on the sale of raw milk may end up hurting the very people it is trying to help. "As a food microbiologist who has watched a lot of lawsuits, I wonder if this strategy couldn't backfire if things go really wrong," she says. "If you are a Vermont farmer, are you prepared for that knock on your door? Do you have liability insurance?"
Shollenberger is staunch in her belief that, for many farmers, the "opportunity to be economically viable" is worth the risk. "My understanding is that if our proposal is enacted into law, and it's proven that someone gets sick from a farmer's milk, the farmer would be liable," she acknowledges. But she insists the farmers working with Rural Vermont "are committed 1000 percent to quality and safety, and are happy to stand behind their products."
Will Vermont's legislators stand behind raw milk? Time will tell.