MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin dairy farmers could legally sell raw, unpasteurized milk directly to consumers despite potential health risks under a bill an Assembly committee approved Tuesday.
The move clears the way for a vote in the full Assembly. An identical bill is ready for a vote before the full Senate as well, but time is running out. The legislative session ends in May and it's unclear whether the measure has support from Democratic leaders.
Spokeswomen for Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan, D-Janesville, and Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker, D-Weston, said both leaders have to talk to their caucuses. Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle said he would have to review whatever comes to his desk, but the measure would have to strike a balance between raw milk producers and the mass market dairy industry.
The Wisconsin Medical Society, the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, the Wisconsin Cheesemakers Association and the Wisconsin Dairy Products Association all have registered against the bill.
"Being a realist, there's a lot of powerful interests lining up. They're losing the battle on this one so they'll turn to fear. ... but again, if that's the case, we'd better ban cigarettes in Wisconsin, better ban sushi," said the bill's chief sponsor, Rep. Chris Danou, D-Trempealeau. "It's about allowing adults to make decisions."
Supporters contend raw milk is purer, healthier and tastes better than pasteurized milk. Opponents counter bacteria can easily contaminate it and sicken drinkers.
The federal government doesn't allow raw milk sales, but does permit states to adopt laws allowing its sale as long as it doesn't cross state lines, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. As of 2007, 26 states allowed some form of raw milk consumption as of 2007, according to a survey from the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.
Wisconsin law currently bans raw milk sales directly to consumers. Statutes allow an exemption for occasional sales to individuals who visit farms in person, but farmers can't advertise and sales can't be a regular part of their business.
But momentum has been growing to legalize broad sales. Danou said he introduced the bill to give farmers another avenue of income in the recession and to curtail "overzealous" state Department of Agriculture investigations of farmers selling milk.
The Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection has launched eight investigations into raw milk sales since last summer, agency spokeswoman Donna Gilson said. She did not have any estimates of how many farms sell raw milk in the state.
"When the legislature passes a law, they do expect us to enforce it," she said.
Danou's first version of the legislation, circulated in the Senate and Assembly, would have set up a permit system for farmers to sell raw milk if they place it in sanitary containers and put up signs warning it's not pasteurized. Farmers also would have been immune from all liability if consumers fell ill.
Hundreds of people jammed a public hearing on the measure in Eau Claire earlier this month. Of the 679 people or so who registered an opinion on the bill, 657 were for it, said Rep. Phil Garthwaite, D-Dickeyville, chairman of the Assembly Rural Economic Development Committee.
The Wisconsin Coalition for Consumer Choice, a group that works to limit government intrusion into consumer rights, the Wisconsin Farmers Union, which advocates for family farms, and the Wisconsin Health Freedom Coalition, which supports access to natural healing methods, all have registered with the state in support of the bill.
Danou has since amended the bill to allow farmers to sell raw milk until the end of 2011. He removed the liability immunity and would require farmers to test the milk for pathogens at least monthly and record each sale.
Advertising beyond signs on the farm would still be banned and containers would have to carry a label warning that raw milk may contain organisms that cause disease.
Danou said he made the changes after farmers said they wanted a chance to prove raw milk is safe.
The Senate's agriculture committee approved the changes earlier this month. Garthwaite's Assembly panel approved the revisions 8-1 on Tuesday, but committee members seemed reluctant.
Rep. Brett Davis, R-Oregon, Wis., voted yes but said he was concerned raw milk problems could tarnish Wisconsin's signature dairy industry. He said he was glad to see tracking methods in the bill.
Rep. Ann Hraychuck, D-Balsam Lake, voted for the bill, too, but said she was conflicted over balancing public safety and consumers' rights.
"It comes down to a choice," Garthwaite replied. "You know what you're getting. You know the risks."
The lone dissenter, Rep. Andy Jorgensen, D-Fort Atkinson, said the bill was rushed. He said he wanted more verification of raw milk's benefits and risks.
Dan Siegmann, a 51-year-old organic dairy farmer from Rubicon, said he was pleased with the revisions and insisted unprocessed food such as raw milk is safe and healthy. The bill wouldn't boost his income dramatically, he said, but it would let him offer a product consumers want.
"We're just looking to help people," he said.
But John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheesemakers Association, said he wanted to see no bill at all. People inevitably will get sick from raw milk, giving the dairy industry a black eye, he said.
"It was not the right vote," Umhoefer said. "This endorses raw milk and we accept the potential for outbreaks."