Farmer hopes legislature opens market for raw milk

In a state that nurtures young chefs and generally exalts eating, Louisiana has been slow to adopt the national trend toward local and organic food.

That’s not to say farmers markets are not popular.

From Main Street in Baton Rouge to Magazine Street in New Orleans, and from Foreman Drive in Lafayette to Covington, Slidell and Gretna, community markets are crowded on Saturday mornings with people buying fresh, locally grown vegetables, fruits, meats and seafoods, usually produced and sold by the farmers and their families.

But one of the key components in the nation’s “natural foods” movement is missing in Louisiana: the sale of raw milk for human consumption.

Louisiana legislators will debate this week whether this state should remain among the 10 in the country that ban the sale of unpasteurized milk.

Though a hot topic in other state legislative bodies around the country for more than a decade, House Bill 247 will be the first time this issue has been debated by Louisiana lawmakers.

The debate pits small farmers against dairy operators.

Much effort has gone into finding language that would satisfy both sides. For instance, selling raw milk to all comers at farmers markets has morphed into face-to-face interactions directly between the farmer and the customer.

But the rhetoric — better health benefits versus safety concerns — is heated, and each side refuses to credit any part of any argument by the other side.

“I wanted raw milk for my children and my family,” said Daphne Olivier, a licensed dietitian blogger from Breaux Bridge who contends raw milk provides more nutrients that help the body grow and better protect it from disease.

“Whenever milk is pasteurized, it alters the availability of vitamin A and vitamin C, iron, folates, folic acid, and kills microbes … that help create vitamins and help in the absorption of the nutrients,” Olivier said, adding the sanitation concerns that led to pasteurization have been identified and addressed.

“There is risk when drinking raw milk, especially if the farm is not clean or if the animals are not well taken care of. However, when you know your farmer and where your milk comes from, that risk is significantly decreased,” Olivier wrote in her blog.

“You can drink raw milk and nothing will happen. But you’re playing Russian roulette with your health,” said Bruce Jenny, who teaches dairy cattle nutrition and management at the LSU School of Animal Sciences.

Pathogens, which can cause disease, can grow on the cow’s skin and in her gut and splash out in her feces, he said. Raw milk is a wonderful host, providing the nutrients and the environment needed to grow all manner of diseases.

“As sanitary as we try to be on dairy farms, there’s always the possibility of contamination. If you pasteurize, that risk is removed,” Jenny said, adding many studies show pasteurization does not significantly change nutritional values.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration pulls no punches, warning in stark terms that raw milk “can carry bacteria that can make you sick” such as E. coli, campylobacter, listeria and salmonella.

Consumers of raw milk could face “many days” of diarrhea, stomach cramping and flu-like symptoms, according to the FDA. They could possibly suffer kidney or liver disease, even paralysis and death.

The FDA extends its warnings to soft cheeses that use unpasteurized milk that has not been aged long enough. This is why Camembert cheese tastes so much more earthy in France than it does in the U.S.

There are several ways to pasteurize milk. An FDA example, for instance, would warm the milk to 150 degrees Fahrenheit for a half-hour, then reduce the temperature to 55 degrees.

The development of pasteurization allowed for the expansion of the dairy industry that could provide plentiful and safe supplies of milk at a low price.

One of the few points on which opponents and supporters agree is that failing to pasteurize milk at the larger dairy operations would be dangerous.

Almost all of the milk bought in grocery stores today comes from dairymen who handle dozens, if not hundreds, of cows every day. Carefully tested at every step, the milk comes from many dairy farms and is mixed together.

A better understanding of sanitation negates much of the safety concerns, counters Sierra Majors, a 33-year-old who calls herself a “pioneer with an iPhone.” Majors lives with her husband and two children along the Atchafalaya River on an idyllic 40-acre farm.

Majors says smaller herds and specific procedures can take care of safety concerns on the front end, when the cow is milked, rather than on the back end, when the milk is processed for consumption.

Before milking, she washes the cow’s udders and teats with soap, discarding the soapy water when finished and putting that equipment away. She sprays the udder and teats with iodine, sterilizes the buckets and other equipment used to collect the raw milk; then she washes and dries her hands.

“I follow the guidelines because I want to protect the health of my family,” Majors said, adding that having only two cows — both have names — which she milks every day, she can tell quickly if either has a problem.

“If you have 300 cows, you won’t notice that as quickly,” she said. “We take health precautions before there are problems.”

Texas farmers sell raw milk for about $10 a gallon. Pasteurized milk was selling for $5 to $7 per gallon over the weekend in Baton Rouge grocery stores.

“Nobody is going to get rich from this,” Majors said. “We’ll pay our expenses and make a little bit of profit. It’ll supplement our income.”

The Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation, which represents farmers and dairymen large and small, hasn’t yet taken a position on the issue.

Several versions of HB247 have been circulating among the agricultural community over the past few weeks.

The details of the version presented at the committee hearing will go a long way in determining whether the Farm Bureau is quiet or comes out strongly against the measure, said Jim Monroe, assistant to the president of the bureau.

The group’s real worry is that someone vulnerable, such as a child or an elderly person, will die from a disease caught from unsanitary raw milk, and the fact that the milk was raw will get lost in the shuffle, creating a negative impact on dairymen’s sales, Monroe said.

State Reps. Mike Danahay, D-Sulphur, and Stephen Ortego, D-Carencro, sponsored HB247 and have been rewriting the measure, pretty much continuously, to address the concerns raised by the Farm Bureau and others.

New wording will be substituted for the current version before Thursday’s meeting of the House Agriculture, Forestry, Aquaculture and Rural Development Committee.

The newly written bill will detail specifics about the minimum number of cows, how they are housed and milked, how much raw milk a farmer can produce and how the milk is handled, Danahay said.

The measure likely will include several restrictions, such as allowing only face-to-face sales on the farm.

“We’re trying to find that neutral ground,” Ortego said.