Carrying a cooler of raw milk, Wisconsin vegetable farmer Brian Wickert climbs the steps of the state Capitol on a sunny April day. He is a man on a mission: to lobby for legislative support for a bill to legalize sales of unpasteurized milk.
“It’s real simple,” Wickert, a member of the lobbying group Wisconsin Raw Milk Association, says in a later interview. “We want the right to choose the food we eat. Why does the government care whether I want to go and drink raw milk? Am I so stupid that I don’t know the risks?”
For Wickert, this bill is about having the freedom to live without interference from the government. But for health officials in America’s Dairyland, it’s about potentially exposing unsuspecting citizens to disease-causing bacteria. At the crux of this debate is the age-old question: How much should government protect its citizens from possible hazards?
That question took on increased urgency this month after bacteria in raw milk from an unnamed farm sickened at least 16 fourth graders and family members at a Racine County event, resulting in one hospitalization. The June 3 after-school party was designed to celebrate Wisconsin food.
“I got very, very sick,” says Melissa Werner, 40, who drank raw milk at the event with her son, Nathan, 10. Both later suffered from nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and high fever. Werner was ill for two weeks, losing 12 pounds.
“Still, even now, when I eat, I can tell things aren’t 100 percent right,” she says.
Cheryl Mazmanian, a health officer with the Western Racine County Health Department, says while the incident in Raymond illustrates the dangers of raw milk, it violated no state laws.
“It’s not illegal to drink raw milk, it’s not illegal to give it to people, but it is illegal to sell it,” Mazmanian says.
Raw milk can contain disease-causing bacteria that the pasteurization process is designed to kill. Wisconsin law allows “incidental” sales of raw milk products to farm employees or visitors who buy on an ad-hoc basis. Those products include buttermilk, kefir, yogurt, cottage cheese, ice cream, butter and cheese.
To get around the law, in some cases, farmers create programs in which consumers become part owners of cows or farms to get a regular supply of raw milk. While some of those arrangements were condoned by state officials for several years, the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) in 2008 warned that such arrangements were illegal and began cracking down on raw-milk operations.
In other instances, people ignore the law, creating a type of black market in which consumers and farmers keep their transactions quiet to avoid regulatory scrutiny.
One of the customers is Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, one of the co-sponsors of the bill introduced in May that would legalize raw milk sales. He says he gets milk from different farms but would not specify which ones — a common response among raw milk consumers.
“People don’t want to answer those questions because it jeopardizes your farmer. It’s a screwy system,” Wickert says. “You’ve got people’s lives and livelihoods in the balance.”
The measure co-sponsored by Grothman and Rep. Don Pridemore, R-Hartford, would allow farmers to sell raw milk directly to consumers. Pridemore says he’s open to adding testing requirements to the bill, which it currently lacks.
“My main goal is to get a public hearing to present reasons to make it a better bill,” he says.
But one top official, Dr. Jim Kazmierczak, state public health veterinarian, warns that even daily testing cannot detect all contamination. Cows can shed bacteria intermittently, he says, so a negative test in the morning might not mean milk collected from the same cow in the afternoon is safe.
Last year, a similar bill with more health safeguards was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. At the time, the governor expressed concerns about the safety of unpasteurized milk, which some consumers drink for its perceived health benefits.
Like many of the roughly 15 farmers and consumers who came with Wickert to lobby, Grothman and Pridemore drink raw milk regularly.
“I drank it. I drank a lot of it, and I don’t consider it risky behavior,” Grothman says.
Public health officials disagree. In 2010, raw milk products caused 28 disease outbreaks in the United States that sickened 159 people, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Raw milk has caused seven disease outbreaks in Wisconsin since 1998, including the incident in Raymond, state health officials say. The outbreaks sickened at least 277 people; 28 were hospitalized. Six outbreaks were caused by campylobacter bacteria from cow manure that got into raw milk and raw cheese curds, causing illness but no death.
Many officials, including Mazmanian, are particularly concerned about the possibility of children, who are more vulnerable to infection, consuming raw milk.
“They were told there would be ‘whole farm-fresh raw milk,’ ” she says, referring to the Racine County event. “Now, did they understand it was unpasteurized? I don’t know.”
Werner was aware that the milk at the North Cape Elementary School event was unpasteurized but says she did not fully understand the health risks.
“I’m not opposed to the legalization, I just think there should be some testing and standards in place to ensure this doesn’t happen,” Werner says. “Because I do really worry about younger children not being able to handle being as sick as I was.”
A statement from Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s office says he would support legislation allowing the limited sale of raw milk in Wisconsin, provided certain safety provisions are in place.
“The bill would need to contain the appropriate safeguards to protect public health and the integrity of our state’s signature industry, while giving consumers the opportunity to purchase raw milk directly from farmers,” Walker press secretary Cullen Werwie says.
The next raw milk state?
The raw milk bill introduced in May leaves out many safety regulations recommended in a 261-page report written by the Raw Milk Policy Working Group. Members include 22 Wisconsin dairy experts with a variety of opinions on raw milk, including academics, public health officials, and representatives of DATCP, dairy and cheese producers and agricultural groups.
The working group was appointed by Rod Nilsestuen, then-secretary of DATCP, to recommend safety regulations in case raw milk sales were legalized in Wisconsin. The group’s report, published Wednesday, calls for detailed regulations on storage, testing and sales of raw milk if they were legalized.
Under the 2011 bill, farmers would be required to post signs indicating they sell unpasteurized milk products, but they would not have to place warning labels on raw milk products or warn customers about the dangers of raw milk, as the previous bill required.
Farmers who milk fewer than 20 cows would not need to have a license or grade A dairy permit to sell raw milk. The current bill also would allow farmers to advertise their raw milk products, something the 2010 bill prohibited.
Scott Rankin, chair of the Department of Food Science at UW-Madison and member of the working group, says the latest bill is not based on science.
“This is shockingly simple,” Rankin says of the bill. “It just omits so much of all the concerns around how you handle any food, let alone raw milk.”
Grothman says he is aware the group drafted recommendations, but did not read or incorporate them into his bill. He believes the working group was biased against raw milk, but credits members for trying to be balanced.
“They did a lot of work and we’re certainly going to look at them,” Grothman says. “There’s going to be a compromise.”
Rankin says he hopes legislators will consider the recommendations and amend the bill accordingly.
“We sat for hours and hours contending with these issues and crafting policy. Ignore it at your own risk,” Rankin says. “If you decide to write this in a vacuum, that’s fine, but this is one where you need to do your homework. And the (DATCP) report was intended to be that homework.”
Passions strong on both sides of debate
There is a sharp ideological divide between those who support the legalization of raw milk and those who object. Some advocates argue the government should not limit their food choices. Public health officials, meanwhile, say the risks associated with drinking raw milk require regulation — if not an outright ban.
Vince Hundt, an organic farmer and member of the working group, says he supports the current bill without most of the working group’s suggestions.
“These are recommendations that state health officials, the dairy industry at large and professional food processors would like to see in the bill,” Hundt says. “The consumers of raw milk and producers would like to simplify it very radically and say the only stipulation is that the milk must go directly from the farmer to the consumer.”
The authors of the new bill do not believe legalizing raw milk sales poses a threat to public health.
“Most of us old timers grew up on drinking it anyway,” Pridemore says. “Natural milk tastes a lot better, first of all. Second of all, it’s fresher. The farm that I buy it from, it’s no more than two days old.”
But public health officials warn that freshness does not ensure safety. Kazmierczak says fresh milk can be infected, and the risk of contamination exists at even the cleanest dairy operations.
He says it is impossible to keep floors, milking machines and cows’ udders completely free of manure contamination. Bacteria can enter milk at several stages, including during milking, when it is piped into the bulk tank or during dispensing. Cows may also become infected by grooming one another, he says.
“I think some people … don’t have a good sense of how minute the contamination could be and still result in milk contamination and human illness,” Kazmierczak says.
Disease prompted pasteurization
Raw milk, by definition, is not pasteurized. During pasteurization, milk is heated to between 145 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit for a short period to kill rapidly growing bacteria.
Concern about unpasteurized milk dates to the late 1800s. As people moved from rural to urban areas, milk was transported longer distances and at higher temperatures. Many city dwellers, particularly children, grew sick and died from drinking contaminated milk.
Public health activists called for reform, and throughout the late 1800s and into the 1900s, state and local governments passed laws requiring pasteurization. The measures were successful. In 1938, about 25 percent of all U.S. food- or water-borne disease outbreaks were caused by contaminated milk. By 2007, that figure was less than 1 percent.
Milwaukee adopted a pasteurization ordinance in 1920, and between 1949 and 1957, the Legislature passed a series of laws requiring milk dealers to have licenses and sell only pasteurized milk, banning raw milk sales by farmers and requiring that milk sold to the public adhere to grade A standards designed to promote sanitary milk production.
The danger: bacterial contamination
Raw milk can contain multiple illness-causing bacteria, including E.coli, salmonella, listeria, brucellosis and campylobacter. One 1992 study found bacterial contamination in 25 percent of samples taken from raw milk stored in bulk tanks.
These pathogens pose infection threats particularly to the young, the elderly and pregnant women. In rare cases, bacteria can enter the bloodstream and cause paralysis, kidney failure and death.
“It’s more than just a stomachache,” Kazmierczak says. “Salmonella in immunocompromised people or children can become invasive. It can cause bloodstream infections and meningitis.”
Adds Rankin, “Healthy adults succumb to these kinds of illnesses every year. It tears your heart out.”
Kazmierczak worries children might consume raw milk without their parents’ knowledge.
“If someone gets really sick and you have a kid that’s on dialysis for six months, who’s responsible for that?” he says. “Frankly, I think that any supporters of this (bill) have to be ready to bear at least partial responsibility for any illnesses that result.”
New bill short on restrictions
Although the 2011 proposal requires raw milk distributors to use a sanitary container and to fill it in a sanitary manner, it does not set any standard for cleanliness. Grothman says it will be up to the consumer to find trustworthy suppliers.
“I think people who buy raw milk should familiarize themselves with the farmer,” Grothman says.
David Gumpert, author of the book, “The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America’s Emerging Battle Over Food Rights,” believes pasteurization is not as crucial as it once was.
“We understand the importance of sanitation and good animal health, not to mention that we have refrigeration and automated milking equipment, all of which reduce the chances of contamination,” he says.
Tony Schultz, board member of Family Farm Defenders, a Madison-based nonprofit that seeks to create a farmer-controlled food system, believes health concerns about raw milk are overblown.
“Every year you hear about thousands getting sick from some sort of ‘big’ food — beef, spinach, tomatoes,” Schultz says, adding he believes if consumers bought directly from farmers, there would be fewer and smaller outbreaks.
He believes the debate is really about large corporate farms’ desire to control the agricultural sector and the pushback from small farmers and consumers who want to have a closer relationship with their food.
Kazmierczak acknowledges that supporting family farms and local agriculture is “emotionally appealing.” But, he adds, “The bottom line is, the more available you make raw milk, the more people are going to drink it, and the more people are going to get sick.”
Legalization equals right to choose
For raw milk consumers, the heart of the issue is the right to choose their food.
“We want good health. We want to be able to have the choice to drink what we know is good for us,” says farmer and raw milk consumer Melody Morrell, who lives on a community-sustained farm in southwestern Wisconsin. “That makes sense to me. It’s frustrating that someone can say ‘No you can’t,’ even if it’s the healthiest thing.”
Hundt, the organic farmer, says the public should be trusted to make that choice.
“A consumer can walk to the store and buy a quart of gin or a carton of cigarettes, but you can’t buy a gallon of milk from a farmer,” Hundt says. “It’s preposterous and symptomatic of a society that doesn’t trust its citizens and abandoned the idea that people are free and should make these decisions for themselves.”
Kazmierczak responds that government regulates all kinds of risky products.
“You can’t buy your kids lead toys from China, you can’t serve them powdered milk that’s got melamine in it,” he says. “Society and government have decided that there are limits to parental autonomy, and, in my opinion, this should be one of them.”
Morrell, for one, is not worried. Her three children drink raw milk every day. She knows the farmer and the cow that produce it, and she trusts it is safe.
“I knew a lot of people growing up that drank raw milk,” says Morrell, who was raised in rural Minnesota. “And I’ve never met one person who’s been sick from raw milk ever in my life.”