LA CROSSE, Wis. (AP) — Both sides in the divisive raw milk debate argued Monday before a Wisconsin state Senate committee considering a bill that would allow residents to get milk straight from the cow.
The Senate's Committee on Financial Institutions and Rural Issues heard testimony in La Crosse on a bill that would allow farmers to sell unpasteurized milk directly to consumers. Retail sales in grocery stores would still be banned. A similar hearing was held in Madison last week.
Supporters tout the taste and health benefits of raw milk and say it's a matter of personal freedom. But opponents argue that unpasteurized milk is a hazard to public health and to Wisconsin's $2.6 billion dairy industry.
State Rep. Chris Danou, D-Trempealeau, told the committee the bill offers guidelines for what is already happening.
"What is a reasonable framework for selling something people want to purchase?" Danou said. "Unregulated black markets aren't a good idea."
Raw milk proponents note that eight of the nation's top 10 dairy producing states — including California, the largest — allow for the sale of unpasteurized milk.
Industry groups are scrambling to stop that.
"It is disheartening that lawmakers in America's Dairyland are even considering legislation that would damage public health by liberalizing the sale of raw milk to consumers," Jim Mulhern, chief operating officer of the National Milk Producers Federation, said in a prepared statement. "The benefits of consuming raw milk are illusory, but the painful costs of illness and death are very real."
A raw milk bill cleared the state Legislature with bipartisan support in 2010, but drew a veto from then-Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, who cited concerns for public health and the reputation of Wisconsin's dairy industry.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker said Monday he's "open to looking" at raw milk legislation, but suggested he would need assurance from two groups adamantly opposed to it.
"I'll be listening to people in the profession — in terms of the dairy industry but in particular health professionals, public health professionals," Walker said. "If they can give us a sense that the safety and well-being of consumers of dairy products can be guaranteed that would be a key threshold for us."
Shawn Pfaff, a spokesman for the Safe Milk Coalition, said the group would oppose any new legislation making it easier to sell raw milk, noting current law allows "incidental" sales, the La Crosse Tribune reported.
"We don't think science allows us to compromise on this," Pfaff said.
Among those with the Safe Milk Coalition is Jim Mlsna, a retired veterinarian and dairy farmer from Hillsboro who said he drinks raw milk — as do his kids and grandkids — but doesn't think it should be offered to "other people who aren't used to it."
Mlsna, whose milk is used in production of cheese, worries raw milk could harm his product's reputation.
"That gallon of raw milk that gets somebody sick is going to look no different than a gallon of milk from my farm," he said.
But Wayne Craig, who sells raw milk from his organic farm in New Holstein, noted people have died from eating contaminated cantaloupe, lettuce, eggs, cheese and pasteurized milk.
"Eating can be dangerous," Craig said.
Information from: La Crosse Tribune, http://www.lacrossetribune.com