RALEIGH — While the demand for unpasteurized, “raw” milk is growing around the country, North Carolina remains one of 20 states where selling it is illegal. State Rep. Glen Bradley, R-Franklin, wants to change that.
But when the freshman lawmaker brought the issue up for debate at a meeting of the House Select Committee on Agricultural Regulations March 7, he was faced with a group of heavy hitters who oppose the legalization of raw milk adamantly.
Opponents included government health officials, dairy processors and distributors, and Monsanto, the world’s largest agricultural biotech company. All claimed that raw milk is dangerous for human consumption, a potential source of food-borne illnesses including bacterial infections, and a health hazard the government must outlaw.
In contrast, supporters considered raw milk “nature’s perfect food.” As long as it came from healthy cows eating grass in the sunshine, they said, it’s safer than pasteurized milk. They argued big dairy and big agriculture are behind the international push to outlaw the beverage, because the two industries create an inferior product coming from cows fed unhealthy grains and injected with hormones and antibiotics. Moreover, raw-milk backers said, the big boys fear competition from independent local farmers.
The legal status of raw milk was one of three topics on the meeting agenda of the special committee Republicans created last year to review state regulations on agriculture (Legalizing industrial hemp and regulation of egg candling and grading also were discussed.)
Since at least 1983, state law has required that only Grade A pasteurized milk can be sold for human consumption. And since 1987, shipping unpasteurized milk across state lines has violated federal law.
It isn’t illegal to consume raw milk from one’s own cow, however. Until 2004 raw milk drinkers got around the law by purchasing a cow share, or partial ownership of a cow. Basically, they paid a farmer to board and milk “their” cows for them.
In 2004, the General Assembly outlawed cow shares.
Since then North Carolinians have had to buy raw milk under the guise of “pet” milk, labeled “not for human consumption.” It hasn’t been readily available because few farmers will risk being shut down if they’re caught knowingly selling raw milk as human food.
Supplying the demand
The number of dairy farms in North Carolina has declined steadily over the last several decades, Roland McReynolds, executive director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, said to the committee.
Legalizing raw milk would be “an opportunity for our remaining dairies to serve an existing and growing consumer demand while making the family dairies more sustainable and more profitable,” he said.
McReynolds said farmers are being approached by consumers willing to pay between $6.00 and $8.00 a gallon for raw milk, “compared to the dollar to dollar-fifty they get for selling milk for pasteurization to milk co-ops.”
Ruth Ann Foster, a chapter leader of the Weston A. Price Foundation — a nonprofit advocating organic farming and less consumption of processed foods — said raw milk often sells for $10 to $12 a gallon.
“I get hundreds of emails and phone calls from people all over the state from people looking for sources of raw milk,” she told the committee.
Because there’s not enough to go around in North Carolina, a lot of people are going to South Carolina, she said. “I know one group picks up 175 gallons every week.”
“I also know there’s more than one farmer coming down from Pennsylvania bringing raw milk,” Foster said. These are opportunities that are being lost for North Carolinian farmers, she said.
Protecting the public
The opportunity is not worth the risk, said Glenn Jernigan, a lobbyist for the Carolina Virginia Dairy Products Association and Monsanto and a former state senator.
“I know we all like individual rights and individual privileges and individual choices … but this is an issue that could seriously affect the health of North Carolinians, and it’s not an issue that should be taken lightly,” he told the committee.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 45 outbreaks of food borne illness implicated unpasteurized milk or cheese between 1998 and 2005, Jernigan said. “That is 1,007 illnesses, 104 hospitalizations, and two deaths.”
“You’re going to be faced with more than 3,000 decisions on legislation this session,” he said. “I want to remind you that the protection of our health should be at the top of our priority list.”
Jernigan also wanted to remind the committee what happened that last time the General Assembly considered loosening regulations on raw milk. In 2007, when then-state Sen. Kay Hagan proposed legislation re-legalizing cow shares, interest groups from all over the country showed up to voice their disapproval. Among those, Jernigan said, were:
• The Carolina Virginia Dairy Products Association
• The North Carolina Dairy Producers Association
• The North Carolina Farm Bureau
• The North Carolina State Grange
• The Agriculture Alliance of North Carolina
• The state’s health director
• The North Carolina Association of Local Health Directors
• The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources
• The U.S. Food and Drug Administration
“I just want to report to you the opposition to removing the barriers to raw milk,” Jernigan said.
Legalizing cow shares, he continued, would be “devastating” to North Carolina’s $600 million dairy-product industry.
Right to drink milk
Fergus Hodgson, director of fiscal policy studies at the John Locke Foundation, said no matter what the health or economic outcomes of raw milk, citizens have a fundamental right to consume it.
He cited Article 1, Section 1 of the North Carolina State Constitution, which guarantees the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Hodgson said there is a long list of developed nations — including Germany, Holland, Belgium, France, Demark, Sweden, Poland, and Italy — that allow raw milk.
“These nations are hardly known for their respect for liberty, and yet in this regard people living there are freer than North Carolinians,” he said. “Even Great Britain, that nation Americans fought against for independence, has legal, retail sales of raw milk.”
Raw milk is so widely accepted in Europe that many nations allow it to be sold in vending machines, he said.
Hodgson said the CDC report Jernigan cited was out of date, as the agency has said at least one of those deaths resulted from eating fresh cheese produced from raw milk rather than drinking raw milk.
“In that same period that there were no deaths from raw milk, there were three deaths from pasteurized milk,” Hodgson said. He noted the CDC estimates there are between 9 million and 10 million raw milk drinkers in the United States.
He also suggested lawmakers opposing the sale of raw milk may “favor lobbies that benefit economically from the status quo of restricted competition.”
Bradley, who co-chairs the Select Committee on Agricultural Regulations, said the committee would be reviewing a variety of regulations related to agriculture. Raw milk regulations may or may make it on the committee’s priority list for legislative action.
If not, Bradley plans to introduce his own bill that either would legalize the sale of raw milk, or, failing that, legalize cow shares.
Although Bradley does not drink raw milk, he sees protecting the right to do so as fundamental, because it begs the larger question of “whether we are free to own our own bodies.”
“We were brought up to think America is the land of the free, but we’re drifting into this whole nanny state thing, where the government controls our every action for our own good,” Bradley said. “The freedom to pursue happiness implies the freedom to make mistakes. If you have a government that prevents citizens from making mistakes, you don’t have liberty anymore.”
Sara Burrows is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.