WASHINGTON, April 2, 2014 - Twenty House members are backing legislation that would ease restrictions on interstate sales of unpasteurized milk – a product that medical experts and major dairy groups say can be harmful, even deadly, especially to children.
The lawmakers -- three Democrats and 17 Republicans, many with Tea Party support – have introduced bills (HR 4307 and HR 4308), which would revoke the Food and Drug Administration’s authority to restrict or regulate interstate sales of unpasteurized milk or milk products from states where such products are legal. It would also revoke the agency’s power to prosecute producers or dealers for sales of raw milk or its products.
Statements by the lead sponsors – Reps. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., and Chellie Pingree, D-Maine – seek to frame the issue as one of consumer freedom of choice and relieving farmers of federal interference. But they are silent on the motivation behind the effort to legalize raw milk – the often-made (and regularly disproved) claims that raw milk creates immunity to diseases and even cures such maladies as asthma and acne. Likewise, they make no effort to rebut the multiple warnings by government and scientists about the dangers of drinking raw milk.
“Our bills would make it easier for families to buy wholesome milk directly from farmers by reversing the criminalization of dairy farmers who offer raw milk,” Massie said. “The federal government should not punish farmers for providing customers the foods they want, and states should be free to set their own laws regulating food safety.”
“Many consumers want to buy fresh, unpasteurized milk and regulations shouldn’t get between them and the farmer who wants to sell it,” Pingree said. “Given how many food scares there have been involving large-scale producers, it just doesn't make sense to spend money cracking down on small, local farmers who are producing natural, raw milk and cheese.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says raw milk is 150 times more likely to cause food-borne illness than pasteurized milk and such outbreaks had a hospitalization rate 13 times higher than those involving pasteurized dairy products. A four-year study by Cornell and USDA found the risk of Listeria monocytogenes from raw milk was greatest for pregnant women, young babies and the elderly. A food poisoning outbreak data base maintained by the Center for Science in the Public Interest shows a far higher incidence of illness from raw milk than from pasteurized milk and dairy products. It also shows the outbreaks linked to raw milk have increased in states where restrictions have been relaxed.
Despite demonstrated risk, 28 states permit the sale of raw milk and the drive to legalize it continues. Advocates who claim that it tastes better and prevents a variety of illnesses have waged guerilla efforts in state legislatures to legalize raw milk or loosen current state regulations. Similar federal legislation by Ron Paul, at the time a Republican congressman from Texas, failed to get a hearing in several previous sessions of Congress. Prospects for the Massie-Pingree bills in the House Energy and Commerce Committee may be slightly better than those of previous bills but the likelihood of final approval remains virtually nonexistent because of consistent industry and scientific opposition.
The principal dairy trade groups, the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) and National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), said in a joint statement that “the risks inherent in raw dairy products are not worth any imagined benefits to either consumers or producers of unpasteurized milk products. Raw milk skips the pasteurization safety process, and this is playing Russian roulette with the health of too many Americans – including many of our children.” The associations urged Congress to reject the Massie-Pingree bills, saying that enactment would “greatly increase the production and consumption of a known health hazard.”
“The benefits of consuming raw milk are illusory, but the painful costs of illness and death are very real,” said NMPF CEO Jim Mulhern. Raw milk is prone to transmitting pathogens such as E. coli O157:H7, Campylobacter, Listeria monocytogenes and Salmonella, he said.
“Our dairy industry benefits from a very high degree of consumer confidence – confidence built in large part due to the excellent food safety record of milk and dairy products,” said IDFA CEO Connie Tipton. Choice “should not preempt consumers’ well-being,” she said.
The dairy groups cite CDC data showing that less than 2 percent of all food-borne illness outbreaks are attributed to dairy products but more than 70 percent of those have been linked to raw milk and inappropriately aged raw milk cheeses. “Seldom has the science behind public health policy been so clearly one-sided. Pathogenic bacteria can be found on any dairy farm, regardless of its cleanliness or the good intentions of its owner. This legislation is a threat to public health and should not be approved,” the organizations said.
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