Your right to purchase unprocessed, organic milk that some medical professionals consider healthier than pasteurized milk could ultimately hinge on new regulations being promulgated in California which could have repercussions across America.
Over a thousand consumers of raw-milk are expected to attend Tuesday's joint hearing of the Senate Agriculture Committee and California’s Select Committee on Food-Borne Illness. At issue: Whether producers of non-pasteurized milk, which contains pro-biotic bacteria thought to boost the human immune system, should be shut down if their milk fails to conform to the same bacteria-count standards as pasteurized milk.
“The government tries to force us into the pasteurization standards,” says Mark McAfee, owner of Organic Pastures Dairy Company, a Fresno, Calif., dairy that sells unpasteurized milk. “It just doesn’t work. It’s two different products.”
Raw-milk advocates estimate that about half a million Americans drink unpasteurized milk, which has been linked to both medical cures and some disease outbreaks. Those in the raw-milk business maintain that their product is routinely tested for the presence of disease-causing bacteria.
According to McAfee, only six states permit the commercial sale of raw milk: Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Washington, New Mexico, and California.
Thirty-five states allow for its sale through other outlets, however, including direct-to-consumer sale on farms, or as ostensible “pet milk” that is actually consumed by humans.
According to the Department of Agriculture, the United States produced 186.2 billion pounds of milk last year.
Sally Fallon, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a natural-foods advocacy and research group based in Washington, D.C., estimates that raw milk accounts for only about 1 percent of total milk production. The Foundation has launched a Web site, www.RealMilk.com, which promotes consumption of raw milk from cows that are not fed hormones to increase production.
McAfee says that consumers in virtually every state have found ways around legal restrictions. In Virginia, for example, cow owners aren’t subject to the restrictions, which has led to “cow share” programs. Consumers actually buy part ownership of a cow so that they can legally purchase and consume a portion of the raw milk that comes from the animal.
Raw-milk devotees claim the milk has cured ailments ranging from lactose intolerance, allergies, joint and ligament problems, and many other ailments. Pasteurization, they say, destroys the beneficial substances naturally found in milk.
Last month, lawmakers in Vermont killed a bill that would have allowed farmers to sell unlimited quantities of unpasteurized milk, reports the Montpelier Times-Argus newspaper.
"Supporters of the bill called it a watershed measure that would have bolstered local economies ... but public health officials and the Agency of Agriculture worried about bacterial outbreaks that could accompany increased raw milk consumption.
"Citing concerns over how raw-milk dealers would be certified, licensed and regulated, the House Agriculture Committee had struck the bill down," the paper reported.
In March, California inspectors banned Organic Pastures’ sales of raw cream, citing levels of bacteria that exceed 150 times the limit proscribed in a new law, AB1735, that took effect Jan. 1. McAfee estimated that ban would cost him $10,000 per week.
He filed suit and won a temporary restraining order against the California Department of Food & Agriculture (CDFA), and has since resumed sales of raw milk and raw-milk cream.
Raw-milk advocates say that pasteurization - the heating of milk to about 71 degrees to kill most of the bacteria in it - kills vital components the human system needs to remain healthy. According to the Organic Pastures Web site, www.OrganicPastures.com, these components include beneficial or “probiotic” bacteria, enzymes, and “many enzyme-based pathogen killing systems.”
On the other side of the argument are federal and state experts who warn that such mislead consumers. They warn that unpasteurized milk can harbour dangerous levels of disease-causing bacteria including salmonella, listeria, e coli, and tuberculosis.
“Raw milk should not be consumed by anyone, at any time, for any reason,” John F. Sheehan, the FDA’s director of Dairy Food Safety, told Maryland legislators. “FDA’s opinion in this matter is entirely consistent with that of the American medical Association, which holds as policy the position that ‘all milk sold for human consumption should be required to be pasteurized.’”
Sheehan is a leading antagonist of raw-milk advocates. He was scheduled to appear at Tuesday hearing on the matter, but canceled.
CDFA officials have also refused to testify at the hearing, citing the pending legal dispute with McAfee.
The CDFA’s refusal prompted an unusually sharp rebuke from California State Senator Dean Florez, the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Food-Borne Illness that is co-hosting Tuesday’s hearing along with the Senate Agriculture Committee.
In an April 10 letter to the secretary of the CDFA, A.G. Kawamura, Florez called the agency’s refusal to respond to the senate’s request for it to participate in the hearings as “extremely disrespectful to both Committees” and to “the Senate as an institution.”
“The lack of response,” he continued, “further demonstrates that CDFA is attempting to hide behind a cloak of secrecy when it comes to the issue of raw milk, further begging the question, ‘What does CDFA have to hide?’”
Chairman Florez’ letter also stated: “Pending litigation should not impact the testimony of any CDFA official, provided that they provide the same testimony before the Committees as they intend to provide in a court of law. In both instances, CDFA merely has to tell the truth.”
McAfee tells Newsmax the CDFA is using the pending litigation as an excuse to avoid answering tough questions.
“They not attending because they have been caught in a lie,” McAfee says. “They lied in telling legislators that AB1735 was mandated by federal law, and there is no federal law for raw milk -- none, zero.”
The controversial new standards, signed into law by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in October, require all raw milk to have 10 or fewer coliform bacteria per milliliter. According to the San Jose Mercury News, coliform bacteria counts at Organic Pastures have ranged from 160 per gram to over 1,500 per gram in recent months.
Dairy scientists point out that some coliform bacteria aid human digestion, while others cause disease. Scientists generally agree that the presence of coliform bacteria alone does not necessarily predict disease.
When regulators temporarily halted McAfee’s raw-milk sales earlier this year, they also warned another dairy, Claravale Farm, that it could face a similar ban. Claravale joined Organic Pastures Dairy Farm in the lawsuit that led to the temporary order allowing sales raw milk in California to resume. The next hearing in McAfee’s lawsuit seeking is scheduled for April 25.
Tuesday’s committee hearings in Sacramento, however, could lead to a legislative solution to the standoff over raw milk. The purpose of the hearings is to gather information that would lead to the establishment of new health and safety standards for raw-milk.
McAfee tells Newsmax he’s confident that the six-hour hearings will provide a model for legalization of raw-milk sales throughout the United States.
“The new standards will lead the way in terms of the highest safety standards in the world that will protect markets and allow producers to provide raw milk to consumers,” he says.
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