MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The debate over legalizing raw milk sales in Wisconsin has been reignited in the Legislature.
A bipartisan bill allowing farmers to sell unpasteurized milk in “America’s Dairyland” was scheduled for a public hearing Wednesday, with a large coalition of opponents from the dairy industry and medical community expected to testify against it.
Supporters argue the government shouldn’t get in the way of farmers who want to sell raw milk to willing customers who say it tastes better and is healthier before it is pasteurized, the process that kills harmful bacteria and extends shelf life.
Opponents say that selling unpasteurized milk is unsafe and could lead to an outbreak of food-borne illnesses such as E. coli or salmonella that would put the state’s $26 billion dairy industry in jeopardy.
The Wisconsin Farmers Union, which advocates for family farms, and the Wisconsin Raw Milk Association are the only organizations registered to lobby in support of the bill. Seventeen groups, including the Dairy Business Association and the Wisconsin Medical Society, are on the record as opposing the bill.
The measure was introduced by longtime raw milk advocate Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, and also has Democratic co-sponsors in the Assembly.
The merits of legalizing raw milk sales in Wisconsin have been debated for years. The closest the law came to changing was in 2010 when Democrats, who controlled the Legislature at the time, passed a bill expanding sales. But then-Gov. Jim Doyle, also a Democrat, vetoed it citing safety and health concerns.
From 1998 through 2011, there were 148 outbreaks of food-borne illnesses due to consumption of raw milk or raw milk products reported to Centers for Disease Control Prevention. Those resulted in 2,384 illnesses, 284 hospitalizations, and two deaths.
Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, said two years ago he would sign a raw milk bill if it had the proper health protections, but more recently he has voiced concerns about what legalizing raw milk sales would mean for Wisconsin’s dairy industry.
The issue has taken on greater urgency following a highly publicized raid of a Sauk County farm by state investigators in 2010. The farmer, Vernon Hershberger, sold raw milk through a private buying club. He was charged with producing, processing and selling milk without proper state licenses but acquitted by a jury earlier this year.
The case became a rallying point for raw milk advocates.
Wisconsin law only allows for incidental sales. The bill up for a hearing Wednesday would legalize all sales made on a farm like Hershberger’s that are directly from the producer to the customer. Broader retail sales would still be outlawed.
The federal government doesn’t allow sales of raw milk because of concerns about food-borne illness, but states can allow them as long as the milk doesn’t cross state lines.