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Thursday, September 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 47.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Crying over raw milk
'Minor issue' becomes more prominent as state gets tough on farmers
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Both Carolyn Graff, a raw milk advocate in Madison, and Donna Gilson, spokeswoman for the state Department of Trade, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (DATCP), grew up on small Wisconsin dairy farms. And both remember drinking unpasteurized milk, direct from the cow.

"We took it out from the bulk tank whenever we needed milk for the house," says Graff. Gilson's family also drank unpasteurized milk, but, she says, "I wouldn't do it today."

In the pantheon of forbidden products, raw milk is hardly the sexiest. Unpasteurized milk doesn't get you buzzed or increase your sex drive. But advocates say it's full of nutrients that the pasteurization process destroys, and thus can help battle diabetes, Crohn's disease, even autism.

Current Wisconsin law states that milk needs to be pasteurized - that is, subjected to the heating process that kills harmful bacteria. Yet proponents argue that raw milk from a well-run, small organic farm is safe, and that milk-borne pathogens are more likely to stem from large-scale dairy operations.

It's not against the law to drink raw milk, which looks kind of thick and tastes more like cream. It's legal for farm families and workers to drink unpasteurized milk from their own cows, and under current law even make "incidental sales" directly to consumers at the dairy farm where the milk is produced. But regularly scheduled or larger-quantity sales are not allowed.

It's only been since last August that the state has cracked down on underground sales of raw milk. That has touched off controversy, with some raw milk advocates alleging they are being targeted for persecution by the state.

"It's not been legal," says Gilson, whose agency polices raw milk sales. "We knew [farmers were selling it], but we had enough other work to do. It's still not our top priority. It's still a minor issue."

The problem, says Gilson, is that the practice became too visible. Farmers advertised on Internet sites that they were selling raw milk. There were prominent stories in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Wisconsin Trails magazine in which dairy farmers stated there was a loophole in the law that allowed them to sell raw milk.

And then, in August, 35 consumers became sick from the same batch of raw milk, all traced to one farm. That prompted DATCP to take action against some of the state's most visible raw milk sellers.

"We can't turn a blind eye to this," says Gilson. "We are primarily a public health agency."

Among the targets: the Zinniker dairy, in East Troy, said to have been the root of the August sickness; a food club run by Max Kane of Viroqua that supplied raw milk products to members in Illinois; and the Trautman farm, in Stoughton, which was reported to DATCP by the commercial dairy to which it sold the majority of its milk.

Gilson says the first enforcement action is sending a letter stating that sales must stop. The second step is a cease-and-desist order.

Scott Trautman lost his Grade A dairy license because his commercial dairy would no longer pick up his milk after it discovered he was selling raw milk from his farm. The state later told him that he could no longer sell meat from a stand on his farm, because he'd been issued the wrong kind of license.

Although Trautman blogged bitterly about this being a tactic to drive him out of business (and engaged in a Christmas Eve protest in front of the Governor's Mansion), he has since been issued the correct retail food license for his farm stand from Dane County. Beth Cleary of the Department of Public Health-Madison and Dane County says the county is now working to exempt Trautman's farm stand from needing to construct a bathroom "because of the simplicity of his operation."

A bill introduced in the state Legislature by state Rep. Chris Danou (D-Trempealeau) and Sen. Pat Kreitlow (D-Chippewa Falls) would legalize on-farm sales of raw milk, buttermilk, butter and cream. (It does not address raw milk cheeses, which are subject to federal minimum aging rules that limit the kinds that can be produced.)

Brian Gould, associate professor in the UW-Madison's department of agriculture and applied economics, says the new law might "help a particular farmer" and "could impact the niche market." But he doesn't think it will have much effect on the industry as a whole.

Conventional Wisconsin dairy farmers are suffering mightily from low milk prices; many are not even breaking even. The chance to sell a product directly to consumers at a premium price could help some dairy farmers regain viability.

But Gould sees a potential downside. While the demand for raw milk is a fraction of the total and would not threaten big dairies, "all you need is one or two instances of people getting sick from raw milk or raw cheese," he says, and people will "stop buying Wisconsin dairy products."

Gilson says her agency is not taking a stand on the bill. However, in mid-January, DATCP Secretary Rod Nilsestuen brought together a raw milk working group that includes academics, raw milk advocates, cheesemakers and other dairy producers. It's scheduled to meet at the end of February.

James Baerwolf of Sassy Cow Creamery in Columbus is serving on the panel. "We'll be trying to see how important this is to people in the state."

Group member Willi Lehner, of Bleu Mont Dairy in Blue Mound, hopes laws can be revised so it's easier for "farmers to be their own bosses, and earn a living wage."

Ultimately, the group will recommend guidelines to the Legislature.

Carolyn Graff finds the nutrients in raw milk beneficial to her health. She belongs to a group that meets to socialize and discuss raw milk and other topics; it's affiliated with the Weston A. Price Foundation, the nation's foremost proponent of raw milk. She feels that raw milk's time has come: "It's where organics were 20 years ago."

Graff did call her state representative to voice her support of the raw milk bill, but she sees "good and bad" with it. Practically speaking, she thinks it's better to "get it passed this way first"; improvements in policy can come later.

Graff notes that the new bill allowing sales of raw milk applies only to farmers who have a Grade A dairy permit and that some small farmers don't. Usually Grade A dairies are fairly substantial operations with herds of 20 to 30 cows.

"Say you have a couple of cows. That's more milk than you can use. One cow can be more milk than a family uses. If that farmer wants to sell raw milk, what does he do?"

Graff has had no trouble getting raw milk from her farmer, whom she declines to name. He's set up an LLC and charges members a yearly fee, and Graff continues to believe the current law allows this. She says her farmer "knows what to say" to state inspectors - that "they are trespassing and that they have no search warrant."

From the raw milk she obtains (she insists on organic, grass-fed), Graff makes her own yogurt and kefir; she has cheese mailed to her from Pennsylvania. ("It's cheaper that way and the quality is better there - 100% grass-fed Jerseys, versus Holsteins.") Pennsylvania is one of 28 states that issue raw milk permits of some kind, and it has a long list of farms and markets selling certified raw milk and related products.

"A lot of people are coming at this issue from the angle of, it's a choice they should be able to have," says Graff. "You can buy raw meat, raw eggs. You can get E. coli from raw spinach. We have all these other choices. Why not raw milk?"

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