TUMWATER, Wash. — Raw milk dairies have weathered recalls, illnesses and warning labels to enjoy “tremendous growth” in Washington, creating a large gap between licensing fees the dairies pay and the money the state spends on testing unpasteurized products, according to the state Department of Agriculture.
Federal authorities ban interstate raw milk sales and brand unpasteurized dairy products as unsafe and without nutritional advantages. Washington, however, has largely supported raw milk dairies, adopting laws to spur the industry’s growth and assessing dairies a fraction of the costs for inspections, tests and emergency responses.
At WSDA’s request, Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget proposal to the 2016 Legislature includes $125,500 from the general fund to hire another microbiologist to test raw milk.
WSDA had asked for twice that amount to hire two microbiologists.
WSDA’s only other funding requests were to control Asian gypsy moths, a threat to Christmas trees and nurseries, and apple maggots, a menace to the state’s most valuable farm product.
WSDA’s request for more microbiologists to test raw milk came after it studied how much the department’s food-safety programs spend monitoring raw milk.
Although raw milk makes up only 10 percent of the samples sent to WSDA’s microbiology laboratory, it accounts for one-third of all tests run at the lab.
Besides the tests conducted on pasteurized milk, raw milk undergoes additional screening and potentially five more tests for illness-causing pathogens, the laboratory’s director, Yong Lui, said.
WSDA estimates it spends $460,000 a year licensing, inspecting, and collecting and testing samples from 40 raw milk dairies.
The department also says it responds to one to five cases of contaminated raw milk each year, spending $4,666 per incident.
Raw milk producers pay the standard $250 dairy plant license fee, raising about $10,000 a year.
The study concluded that the assessment for raw milk dairies would have to be more than $12,000 to cover the department’s expenses.
“Since many raw milk producers are very small firms with only a few cows, an annual assessment of that magnitude would be extremely challenging for most raw milk licensees to absorb,” according to the study’s conclusion.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn against consuming raw milk or unpasteurized dairy products.
Washington is one of 12 states, which also include Idaho and California, that allow raw milk to be sold in retail stores, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some 19 other states, including Oregon, allow raw milk to be sold directly to consumers, such as at dairies or farmers’ markets.
WSDA has issued 15 raw milk recalls in the past eight years. Nevertheless, the number of licensed dairies has increased to 39 from seven in 2007.
“I like to think these folks are being very careful about their milking,” WSDA’s food-safety program manager, Lucy Severs, said. “I think they try really hard.”
Severs said raw milk dairies were helped in 2005 when lawmakers approved filling and capping bottles by hand, saving the expense of investing in equipment.
In 2006, 18 people were sickened by raw milk from an unlicensed dairy. Lawmakers reacted by requiring dairies that sold “cow shares” to obtain licenses, bringing WSDA oversight to the practice of acquiring raw milk by claiming ownership in a cow.
“There was a lot of underground activity going on,” Severs said. “That opened the door for people to come forward and become licensed.”