PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — A South Dakota Senate committee delayed a vote Friday on a bill that would relax regulations on raw milk to give the two opposing sides in the debate two weeks to put together a compromise measure.
After hours of discussion, the Health and Human Services Committee voted 5-2 to push back until Feb. 19 the decision on the bill, which would repeal the rules imposed in December by the state Department of Agriculture and replace them with less stringent standards.
Raw milk producers and their customers said the Department of Agriculture's rules will force producers to spend too much money to comply with unnecessarily strict standards. But advocates say the measure is necessary to protect public health.
Raw milk is not pasteurized, a process that involves heating milk to destroy bacteria and protect shelf life. It can only be sold directly from the producer to the consumer in South Dakota.
The proposed rules require tests on fewer types of bacteria in the milk as compared to the current standards. The bill would allow levels of coliform bacteria five times as high as those in existing rules. It would also allow for the sale of cream made from raw milk.
Trever Gilkerson, the owner of Jerseydale Farms, said he supports the revised rules. He said his operation's milk was recently investigated under the current regulations for a strain of the pathogen listeria that was later deemed harmless. He said he lost business because of the way the Agriculture Department handled the testing and notified the public.
Gilkerson's operation produces 90 percent commercial milk and 10 percent raw milk.
The rules that govern raw milk sales have been in place since Dec. 11 of last year. The Agriculture Department put the new rules into effect after holding three public hearings.
"These rules were rammed down the throats of South Dakotans," said Sen. Phil Jensen, R-Rapid City, who has been drinking raw milk for the past three years.
Jensen's wife, Janet Jensen, also testified in favor of the measure, saying that raw milk provides important nutrients for cancer survivors.
Nisa Kurr said raw milk helped her health problems as well, and now she runs Joy Farms in Caputa. She said in the three years she's operated the farm, the rules have become stricter and stricter.
"This bill is awesome," Kurr said. "It affects my dream of being a small farmer in South Dakota, where I'm from."
But State Agriculture Secretary Lucas Lentsch said the department's rules should be kept in place to set standards for purity and wholesomeness.
"This debate should not be about food freedom," Lentsch said. "Do not mistake existing rules for restrictions on food choice."
He said the new levels for acceptable amounts of bacteria set out in Jensen's bill are not prudent.
Gov. Dennis Daugaard spoke in support of the current rules during a press conference on Friday.
"There are some standards a seller must meet in terms of demonstrating cleanliness and the safety of their product," Daugaard said. "I don't think these are overly burdensome, not from my understanding of it."
Representatives from commercial dairy and medical organizations, including the state secretary of health, also urged that legislators defeat the bill.
Instead, the committee voted to delay the measure.
Sen. Jean Hunhoff, R-Yankton, who chairs the committee, voted against the delay. She said an additional two weeks of negotiation will not bring agreement after the two sides fought so hard for months last year.
"This bill may or may not be the answer, but I think that it does not end here," Hunhoff said.