OGDEN, Utah (AP) — In 2014, 99 people were infected by bacteria traced to raw milk sold at a small dairy in Weber County. One person died and 10 were hospitalized. The campylobacter outbreak triggered an investigation by state and federal health authorities of unpasteurized milk practices in Utah.
But just two years later, producers of raw milk won a victory in the Utah Legislature, which passed a bill allowing raw-milk dairies to sell pasteurized milk alongside raw milk in their on-site retail outlets. Supporters trumpet healthful effects from raw milk, saying pasteurization kills beneficial bacteria.
The debate over the bill was the latest clash between food safety regulators and the food freedom movement, the Standard-Examiner reported (http://bit.ly/1SsCvM0).
The 2014 outbreak and bad publicity far from killed the raw milk industry. Rather, the 2016 legislative comeback for raw milk marked another heady advance in a food freedom movement whose practitioners are clamoring for less government regulation over all manner of down-home food production.
It has developed into a major confrontation led by those who see unfettered local food production as a key to long-term sustainability of communities and a counterbalance to large agriculture industries and processed, irradiated, chlorinated and bug-sprayed foods.
"There is an illusion of food security in this country," said Liz deForest, a food science and technology speaker who testified to a state legislative committee in February. "We are left with buying standard, processed foods. I want the freedom to make that choice myself. With a local producer we can see exactly what we are getting, and we take away a layer of bureaucracy."
But health and food safety officials are pushing back — hard. They're tired of investigating campylobacter and salmonella outbreaks and say it's their job to help keep the food supply safe.
"They don't want any regulations at all," said Travis Waller. "They want all the responsibility to fall upon the consumer." Waller, director of regulatory services in the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, was reacting to the Utah Food Freedom Act, a bill debated during the legislative session this year.
The act would have gutted state regulation of cottage foods, meaning people could sell, without regulation, food products they make at home. It would have limited sanitation efforts at farmers' markets.
A legislative committee killed the bill, saying it went too far. But state Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, who chaired the committee that heard the bill, said food freedom legislation will be back in 2017.
Perry said in April that lawmakers will balance cutting "intrusive" red tape with maintaining minimum food safety standards. He used a poultry scenario to illustrate.
"If I want to sell my chickens fairly easily and can have them processed somewhere safe, that's OK," Perry said. "But if that process happens behind the barn, that puts the obligation on the consumer, and the consumer might not know what kinds of questions to ask."
He also said the economic consequences of foodborne illness outbreaks cannot be shrugged away.
"If someone buys a fresh slaughtered chicken and everybody gets sick, who are we going to blame?" Perry said. "The whole chicken industry gets a bad name, and the same thing goes whether it's milk, produce, cattle."
Everyone would prefer food freedom, he said, "But in reality, we expect certain safety valves to be in place."
Urban homesteading and community gardens are popping up throughout the state. Farmers markets are booming. In many communities, younger generations are leading the way. Facebook groups such as Ogden Urban Homesteaders and the Ogden Chicken Alliance push for room to grow.
"Millennials want this type of availability," said Rep. Mike McKell of Spanish Fork. "We need to resolve this and do this the right way."
Tyson Roberts of Roberts Family Farms in Layton said his business's goal is to provide healthy, safe and affordable fresh produce, and farmers' markets are a major outlet. But he testified to the Legislature that aggressive legislation like the Food Freedom Act is dangerous.
"If there's an outbreak of raw milk one week, I will sell less corn the next week," he said. "Lost income on a farm is almost impossible to make up. And this would be a traceability nightmare, if someone sets a can of raw milk on my produce at the farmers' market. I'm a small producer who is terrified by this legislation."
Perry and state officials said many activities the freedom movement wants are already allowed.
"If you have fresh produce, you can sell it at the farmers' market," Perry said. "You can sell your tomatoes and your jalapeno peppers. But if you dice it and make salsa and there's no label, who knows what you put in your recipe? I might be allergic to something you put in it and you might kill me."
Stacey Taggart, a consumer, pleaded with lawmakers to give people alternatives to processed, canned or boxed food.
"I would like the right to be able to purchase what I need from local people. I can trust them, I can look them in the eye and know their growing practices and how they treat their animals."
UDAF said it fears relaxed control on home food production could breed repeats of incidents such as when home-made cheese caused 1,000 cases of salmonella poisoning across the state, lasting six years until authorities finally tracked down the source in 2013.
"The free market won't take care of a bad player," said Royal DeLegge, director of the Salt Lake County Health Department.
Information from: Standard-Examiner, http://www.standard.net