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Raw milk back on the table

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Small-farm advocates, public health officials, representatives of the dairy industry and—perhaps most of all—drinkers of unprocessed milk all have their eyes on two bills expected to move through the N.C. General Assembly this session.

The first piece of legislation would again legalize what are known as cow shares—the ability of consumers to pool resources to purchase a cow, share the financial responsibility of its care and then share the legal rights to the milk. It is illegal to sell unpasteurized, or raw, milk in the state, and cow shares are considered a middle ground between an outright ban on unprocessed milk and legal retail sales.

Raw milk is legally sold directly from farms in South Carolina, and cow shares are available in Virginia, but North Carolinians currently must travel out of state to purchase such milk legally. Cow shares were quietly banned in the state in 2004 with a line slipped into unrelated legislation without a hearing.

Interest in consuming unpasteurized milk has increased nationwide in recent years, as reports of its health benefits and desire for the taste of the dairy of people's childhoods have multiplied. Last year, a study of nearly 15,000 European children published in Clinical & Experimental Allergy found a statistically significant relationship between consumption of raw milk and lower rates of asthma and allergies.

State Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) plans to shepherd the bill, the Small Dairy Sustainability Act, through the House. It passed the Senate last year by a vote of 39-9, and now it must be approved by both the House committees on agriculture and health before consideration before the whole chamber.

Harrison says she agreed to sponsor the bill because she feels "pretty strongly about this organic and sustainable farming community."

"There is lots more we could be doing to make small family farms viable by letting them sell directly to consumers," Harrison says. "The other piece is that I get a little frustrated with heavy-handed government sometimes. I think this is an instance where people should be able to make the decision."

The economics of cow shares and raw dairy for small and family farms are quite different than the paradigm in which most milk is sold in this country. Whereas conventional farms that sell their milk to processors receive around $1.50 or less per gallon, raw milk fetches anywhere from $6 to $15 per gallon.

Although the legislation would not legalize retail sales in the state, farmers who board cows (or goats) for people who want access to raw milk—but don't have the facilities to care for dairy animals—can make money on their care much in the way stables charge to board horses. That income often means the difference or survival for new and struggling small farms.

North Carolina historically had been a net dairy exporter but now imports milk. In 1970, the state had 5,000 dairies, a figure that has dwindled down to around 300 and continues to fall.

Nonetheless, the bill faces considerable opposition from certain factions of the Agriculture Committee due to the strong influence of large agribusiness in the state. The Carolina/Virginia Dairy Products Association has hired a lobbyist to oppose the bill.

It also faces opposition from the state's public health agency. Dr. Jeff Engel, the state epidemiologist, says drinking raw milk is dangerous, and he opposes any legal access to it. He told the Indy last year that if North Carolinians wanted it badly enough, they could travel to South Carolina.

And a number of Triangle residents are doing just that. At least two groups of families in the area share driving responsibilities and split fuel costs to get milk from out of state.

Ruth Ann Foster of Greensboro, a raw milk advocate, says she sees the opposition to the bill as a reflection of "bureaucracies protecting the dairy industry."

"It's really about freedom of choice and the fact that raw milk is the only food to be made illegal, and it causes the least of the food-borne outbreaks," Foster says, referring to statistics by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that indicate dairy (pasteurized or not) distantly trails produce, poultry and meat products in causing food-borne illness.

"So many people drive to South Carolina to get raw milk where it is legal and can be sold retail, and I don't understand the difference between North Carolina and South Carolina cows," she adds.

Another avenue for consumers to purchase raw milk in the state in recent years is what is known as "pet milk," meaning it's labeled for animal consumption only and thus bypasses the laws against selling unpasteurized milk for human consumption.

To discourage human consumption of unpasteurized milk, at the end of last year the N.C. Board of Agriculture wrote a regulation requiring that all pet milk sold in the state be colored with charcoal dye. Citizen opposition forced the rule into regulatory review, however, and its July effective date is currently suspended. It will go into effect as planned unless the legislature acts this session; a bill to repeal the rule has been drafted by Harrison and is expected to be considered.

There are only two licensed pet-milk producers in the state, although there are several others who operate without a license (under the precept that the licensing requirement itself is of dubious legality). The milk is sold to farmers who have orphaned cows, zoos and wildlife rescues. One of the producers testified before the board last year that the dye threatened the organic certification of the farmers.

Harrison plans to sponsor the bill to repeal the agriculture board's administrative ruling due to what she feels was a reactionary action on the part of the agriculture board. "It's fairly rare for me to want to refute an agency action, but I feel that it was simply meant to discourage the consumption of raw milk," she says.

Together, Harrison says the two bills simply represent the freedom to choose. "I feel that if the consumer feels strongly about it—and its advocates tell me that there are lots of health benefits to raw milk—that our consumers should have access to it."

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