By CAROL RYAN DUMAS

Capital Press

Debate over legalizing the in-state sale of raw milk and raw milk products in Wisconsin is escalating as the clock winds down on Gov. Jim Doyle's time to sign the legislation, veto it or do nothing and let it become law.

That deadline is Thursday, May 20.

The Associated Press earlier reported Doyle intended to sign the bill. But Friday, May 14, the news organization said he is now riding the fence on the issue, following a barrage of opposition.

Critics contend it's a public health issue and a matter of protecting the dairy industry's reputation for safe products. Proponents say it's a matter of personal rights.

Speaking at a joint state Senate-Assembly Agriculture Committee meeting in March, Wisconsin Farmers Union President Darin Von Ruden said on-farm raw-milk sales should be allowed under well-managed handling and labeling programs such as those outlined in the proposed legislation.

"If someone wants to consume raw milk, that person should be allowed to do so at their own risk -- or, if you listen to another side of research, to their own benefit," he said.

"I find it interesting that anyone can go to many restaurants to find raw meats, fish and other seafood on menus. Why can't we allow people the right to drink raw milk?" he asked.

At that same hearing, Melvin Pittman, a Plum City, Wis., dairyman who chairs the Wisconsin Farm Bureau's dairy committee, spoke out against legalizing raw milk sales.

"The primary reason for our opposition ... is our overall concern for our $26 billion dairy industry," he said. "If a person becomes ill from drinking raw milk, it is not only unpasteurized milk that gets a bad image but all milk and dairy products.

National Milk Producers Federation and the International Dairy Foods Association also oppose the law, criticizing elected officials for downplaying the food safety risks and urging federal lawmakers to take measures restricting such sales.

"It is terribly ironic that, at a time when lawmakers in Washington are trying to pass a major food-safety bill to protect consumers from food-borne illnesses, states like Wisconsin are going the opposite direction," said Jerry Kozak, president and CEO of NMPF.

"There is absolutely no science behind the claims of raw milk supporters that pasteurization does anything other than make safer a potentially hazardous product," said Connie Tipton, president and CEO of International Dairy Foods Association.

People who buy raw milk are playing "Russian roulette" with their and their family's health, she said.

Raw milk is a known source of life-threatening pathogens such as campylobacter, salmonella, listeria and E. coli, said Beth Briczinski, National Milk's director of food and nutrition. Pasteurizing it -- heating it to 161 degrees for 15 seconds, followed by a quick cool down -- destroys those pathogens. In addition, it destroys no nutrients except Vitamin C.

"But nobody's drinking milk for Vitamin C," she said. "There's so little there to begin with, to me, that's not the issue."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that from 1993 to 2006, 69 outbreaks of human infections resulted from consumption of raw milk. Those outbreaks included a total of 1,505 reported illnesses, 185 hospitalizations and two deaths. Because not all cases of food-borne illness are recognized and reported, the actual number of illnesses associated with raw milk likely is greater, according to the CDC.

If the bill goes into law, Wisconsin will join about 28 other states that allow some form of raw milk sales or distribution, either commercially or directly from farms. Wisconsin ranks second nationally in milk production.

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