Senate committee rejects raw milk bill

Advocate Photo by MICHELLE MILLHOLLON -- Daphne Olivier, from left, state Rep. Stephen Ortego, D-Carencro, and Sierra Major ask legislators Wednesday to allow the sale of raw milk in Louisiana. Show caption
Advocate Photo by MICHELLE MILLHOLLON -- Daphne Olivier, from left, state Rep. Stephen Ortego, D-Carencro, and Sierra Major ask legislators Wednesday to allow the sale of raw milk in Louisiana.

Farmers’ efforts to sell raw milk in Louisiana died Wednesday in a state Senate committee.

Supporters of House Bill 1279 pinned on “I love raw milk” buttons, assembled information packets and gathered 800 signatures on a petition. They pitched their product as a cure for medical concerns, including osteoporosis and lactose intolerance. They lobbied legislators. They even suggested that God is on their side.

“When God brought the Israelites to the land of milk and honey, he didn’t tell them to boil their milk first,” Rocky Branch farmer Matt Napier told the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare.

However, the bill clashed with concerns about the safety of unpasteurized milk.

State Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain predicted people would get sick from drinking raw milk. He said the health risk is 150 times greater than drinking pasteurized milk.

“We are charged, you and I, with public health, protection of public health,” Strain said.

Only one committee member voted in favor of advancing HB1279. Four others voted against it.

“Good legislation sometimes takes time,” state Sen. Fred Mills, R-St. Martinville, told disappointed raw milk supporters as they gathered their belongings and left the committee room.

HB1279 divided dairy farmers. In pasteurization, bacteria is killed by heating milk to a high temperature. Raw milk is unhomogenized. Louisiana is among 10 states banning raw milk sales. The other states are Hawaii, Nevada, Montana, Iowa, West Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware and Rhode Island.

Dairy farmer Joy Womack warned legislators that a little bit of feces could easily get into raw milk, creating a breeding ground for bacteria. “Pasteurization is very much needed,” she said.

Napier, who runs a small farm in Union Parish, told legislators that they are more likely to get sick from eating a home-cooked hamburger or at a salad bar than they are from guzzling a glass of raw milk. He said no deaths have been associated with raw milk in the last decade.

“This nation is a nation of freedom. The freedom of basic food choice is one that never should’ve been taken away,” he said.

Napier said raw milk is safe for commerce and consumption when handled safely and regulated.

Another dairy farmer, Melville resident Sierra Majors, said HB1279 doesn’t authorize retail sales but the sale of a gallon of milk to a neighbor. She became a raw milk advocate after researching growth hormones added to milk and meat sold at the grocery store. Her husband brought home a goat for her birthday. Now they own cows.

HB1279 would allow farmers to sell up to 500 gallons of goat milk and whole milk a month that has not been pasteurized. The milk would be sold with a warning about the risk of foodborne illness.

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Stephen Ortego, compared the warning to the one that accompanies the sale of raw oysters.

State Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb, D-Baton Rouge, told Ortego that the bill caused problems for her at home. Dorsey-Colomb’s husband grew up in the country and drank raw milk as a child. She joked that he pressured her to vote in favor of the bill.

Dorsey-Colomb asked who would assume the liability if someone did become sick from drinking raw milk.

Majors said a customer could sue her and her farm, adding that HB1279 would require annual vet checks to ensure the animals are healthy. “We’re law-abiding, educated citizens. We don’t want to be made an example of in a courtroom,” she said.

State Sen. Dale Erdey, R-Livingston, told the raw milk proponents that he once drank raw milk as a small child. He said he didn’t like the taste and asked for horse milk.

“Why did we get away from raw milk?” Erdey asked, getting serious.

Majors blamed the Industrial Revolution. She said cows were brought into cities, away from the natural habitats. Ortego, D-Carencro, said cows were put into feeding lots. The result, he said, was food-borne illnesses.

“We’re keeping it at a very small scale,” he said, seeking to reassure the committee.

Strain stalked the back of the committee room during the raw milk proponents’ testimony. He carried a fat stack of documents, including handouts of a May 2014 letter from Robert V. Tauxe, a deputy director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the letter, Tauxe stated that pasteurization “is the only way to ensure that fluid milk products do not contain harmful bacteria.” He wrote that reports were received between 2007 and 2012 of 979 illnesses and 73 hospitalizations related to raw milk consumption.

State Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa, offered the proponents a suggestion. He said state law doesn’t prohibit the sale of milk pails, suggesting farmers could put the price tag on the pail rather than the milk inside it.

Majors said she didn’t want to do anything illegal that would take her away from her children.

“We’re just asking a very simple, pretty please question,” she said.

Mills, who was running the committee, received silence when he asked if anyone wanted to make a motion on the bill. Finally, he recommended that the committee advance the bill. The motion triggered an objection. The committee killed the legislation, which was just steps from final passage.

Voting FOR raw milk sales (1): Mills

Voting AGAINST raw milk sales (4): Sens. Sherri Buffington, R-Keithville; Dorsey-Colomb; Erdey; and Nevers

Follow Michelle Millhollon on Twitter @mmillhollon. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/ politicsblog/