The longest lasting legislative project of my career crossed a major milestone this week. Twelve years ago, I began working to provide access to farm fresh milk from local farms. I was contacted by a constituent whose family drank milk from their own cow. They couldn’t drink all the milk from one cow and wanted to be able to sell excess milk from their cow to their neighbor. I told him that wasn’t a problem, and then I was informed of the serious penalty for the harmless act of selling milk. I vowed to change the law, but I had no idea how hard it would be to convince legislators to vote for freedom.
Senate File 2309 is my latest attempt to let small dairy farms sell fresh milk from their cows. Current Iowa law requires all milk sold or distributed be pasteurized by a processor before sale. The Iowans looking for unpasteurized raw milk have chosen not to buy the commercial milk from grocery stores for various reasons. They are forbidden from buying fresh milk from their neighbors. I do not think that is right and see this as a consumer freedom issue.
Since beginning this effort in 2010, I have learned of the differences of small, old fashioned milk cow herds of a few healthy animals in a pasture and barn and the modern, larger herds of dozens or hundreds or even thousands of cows well-cared for in large modern buildings. Each style of dairy should be able to exist. Large dairy milk should be pasteurized to kill bacteria, as it is handled by individuals who aren’t accountable to either the consumer or the farmer. This ensures safety for the general public. I like this product and it is in my refrigerator.
This isn’t a case with the old-fashioned farmers who milk their cow or cows one at a time and will often keep the milk of different cows separate. The raw milk dairy farmer will be doing the milking along with their family. This family will be drinking the same milk as they sell in face-to-face transactions. I do not believe the state should stand between this willing seller or informed buyer, just as farmers sell farm fresh eggs from their chickens without state interference.
The dairy industry has opposed my efforts for a few general reasons. They fear if someone gets sick on raw milk the general public will back off milk consumption in response. This hasn’t happened in the 44 states who have legal access to fresh milk. There is also industry concern that unpasteurized milk can contain dangerous bacteria that is usually killed in the pasteurization process, which heats milk to 160 degrees, similar to a well-done steak, then quickly chills the milk for storage. I suppose this can happen, but as Radio Iowa reported from our debate, from 1993 to 2012 only 144 people were hospitalized from drinking fresh, raw milk. The level of risk is tiny, and only for those who knowingly choose to take on that risk.
I’ve built in several limitations in order to increase the sense of consumer safety for my colleagues. These restrictions also safeguard Iowans who do not want to accidentally buy fresh, raw milk that has not been pasteurized. It limits a farmer to 10 lactating animals or less in order to separate this cottage industry from the standard commercialized dairy farm. Senate File 2309 also allows sales only on the farm or delivered to the customer by the producer. It requires a label to be fixed to the container that warns the consumer the milk is not inspected and not pasteurized.
In addition, bacterial testing of the milk will be done by the producer monthly and records kept for any customer who asks. I even added an annual vet inspection of each animal to ensure proper care and health practices. Fresh milk will not be able to be sold or delivered to a customer at any food establishment. This includes farmers markets. Sellers at farmers markets will not be able to offer, advertise, sell or sample fresh, raw milk. This is to satisfy the dairy industry’s concerns that uneducated consumers might buy fresh milk thinking it had been pasteurized. For the same reason, the law says fresh, raw milk must be used for the consumer’s family and nonpaying guests, so unsuspecting people will not be exposed.
These restrictions may seem extreme, and they are. It seems like common sense to me that an Iowans should be able to drive down a gravel road and buy a gallon of milk from a farmer, just like a dozen eggs, or fruits, or vegetables. In my opinion fears about illness are overblown, but I added those restrictions to find agreement and I succeeded by gaining bipartisan support for this bill in the Senate.
There is a segment of Iowans who want access to this product. There are families with a cow or goat or sheep who would like to sell this product, and 44 states in the country allow access to fresh milk. Some states have retail sales. Most have farm-to-consumer, like this bill in Iowa. My hope is the Iowa House will see this bill as the freedom effort I mean it to be, and send this one to the governor.