Some Bitterroot Valley dairy producers are vehemently opposed to a bill before the state Legislature that would legalize the sale of raw milk in Montana under certain conditions.
The bill, HB 574, had a hearing in the House Agriculture Committee on Thursday and was introduced by Rep. Champ Edmunds, a Republican from Missoula. It would create a small herd exemption from the existing mandatory pasteurization requirements, meaning a small farmer who has up to 15 cows and 30 goats or sheep could sell non-pasteurized milk on their farm but not bottle it.
Jeff Lewis, who owns MuJuice Dairy north of Corvallis, has 240 cows and a Grade A certification that requires him to pasteurize his milk and have cement floors and stainless steel equipment, like all Grade A dairy producers in Montana since 1998.
“We have a dairy industry in the state of Montana, and it’s something that we all bust our butts to make a living at,” he said. “The biggest issue I see with the bill is it would completely undermine the dairy industry. It doesn’t put us on an even playing field.”
Lewis, who sits on the Montana Department of Livestock board, said that he pays about $12,000 a year to be certified as a Grade A dairy.
“Are these farmers who want to sell raw milk going to pay 50 bucks a month to send in a sample quarterly, and what if the sample is no good?” Lewis asked. “How are you going to enforce all these small farmers? If my inspectors are going out to inspect, and the farmer is not paying for the inspection, then I’ve really got heartburn.”
Lewis also said that raw milk presents a dangerous health concern.
“This whole raw milk thing, there is people getting sick all the time,” he said. “There was a bunch of people that got sick in Alaska recently. The people that advocate this forget to tell people about that. I drink my own raw milk. I don’t sell it, because it’s too much of a risk for me. The people that would sell raw milk would have a huge liability. My milk is cold instantly when it leaves that cow. If you set that milk in a fridge in a bucket, the bacteria will go through the roof in 15 minutes. If it’s above 50 degrees, the bacteria is doubling every minute. If that milk is not cold immediately, you will have bacteria. Every single drop of my milk is tested every single time. Those are the things that people just don’t quite understand. There are so many links in the chain and if one thing is mishandled, you are going to get sick people.”
According to Anchorage-based news station KTVA, 24 people were hospitalized after drinking raw milk from a Kenai Peninsula dairy tainted with a bacterium on March 4.
Steve Merritt, the public information officer for the Montana Department of Livestock, said that raw milk accounts for less than 1 percent of total milk sold in the U.S. but is responsible for 30 percent of dairy-related illnesses.
“There are a whole bunch of agencies, like the FDA, the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association, that advocate not drinking raw milk,” Merritt said. “Raw milk is the most common culprit for zoonotic diseases (infectious diseases that are spread from animals to humans) in the world. Countries that don’t have pasteurization have a lot of problems with brucellosis and other diseases.”
Merritt said that although the bill would require small farmers to have their milk tested every four months, there is no language saying how that would be paid for.
“How are you going to test every producer around the state, how are you going to test those people?” he asked. “We have four milk inspectors. You are talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars of additional salary.”
Lewis said that he isn’t fundamentally opposed to people drinking raw milk, but it has to be highly regulated.
“I’m not saying you can’t do raw milk, but you have to do it right,” he said. “Every load of milk is tested already for a safety thing. If you want to drink raw milk, go buy a cow and milk it yourself, it’s that simple. You can drink your own cow’s milk legally. My biggest thing is I feel it’s a bad bill. If you are milking less than 15 cows there are no rules for you. It would let people go ahead and sell it, but who’s going to pay to police it? The bacteria counts will go through the roof.”
Currently, milk production is highly regulated and extremely safe for the consumer, according to Lewis.
“Thirty years ago, 90 percent of dairies would not meet the standards today, just because we have to be so much cleaner and cool it so quickly,” he said. “We have pre-chillers, and when my milk comes out of the cow it goes from 100 degrees down to where we store it at 35 or 36 degrees very quickly. I don’t think people quite understand how much equipment that takes and how important that is. There was a reason we started pasteurizing milk, there was a reason Louis Pasteur was looked at as a genius.”
Lewis said he and his brother David, who owns Big Creek Diary up the road near Victor, were both raised on raw milk but he wouldn’t dream of selling it to consumers.
“This bill would be giving small farmers a license to do nothing right,” he said. “Being a living, breathing dairy farmer, I know what it takes. Our raw milk is tested for tuberculosis and listeria. We run a blue dot test every month, and as clean as it is we have had almost every bacteria known to man at some point in small amounts in our milk, but you’re talking about 100 parts per million, which is lower than well water in some cases. But I would never sell raw milk just for the liability risk. You get someone selling it and storing it in a bucket, and all you need is a nice hot August day and they get sidetracked and the milk is sitting in a bucket and the bacteria is just exploding. I would never sell it.
“Our immune systems aren’t what they used to be. I am immune because I live it every day. Most people live in a sterile environment. Now you take people who never were exposed, maybe take a kid with a compromised immune system, now you have a scary situation.”
The bottom line for Lewis is that the bill would make it hard to police raw milk quality.
“It’s going to be a nightmare trying to police it no matter what we do,” he said. “I see why people want it. This issue is not going to stop here because we’re seeing it nationwide. But if we’re going to do it we need to do it right. First of all, you allow the dairies that are already inspected to sell it, but if you want to sell it put it in a Grade A dairy. It’s not fair to undermine what we’ve done all these years and let anybody sell raw milk.
“We’ve had rules, and you can’t just make new rules for another group all the sudden. I don’t mind competition but let’s all be on the same page. I can see both sides. If we’re going to go move forward with something, it needs to be fair for everybody. I don’t see it as a competition thing, but I’m worried what could happen to somebody.”
Reach reporter David Erickson at 363-3300 or email@example.com.