Raw milk makes millions—should it be legal nationwide?

Raw milk makes millions—should it be legal nationwide?

A new report shows that raw milk sales totaled $1 million for Vermont farmers last year, offering a compelling economic perspective that may overshadow current raw milk safety concerns.

Raw milk gained national attention this month following the illnesses of 43 people who consumed the product from The Family Cow dairy in Pennsylvania. But as the farm's sales resume after a government inspection, the setback seems not to have affected raw milk proponents who are currently working toward legalizing its sale in several states. 

The news of the raw milk recall comes at the same time when Rural Vermont released its 2012 report on raw milk production and sales. Raw milk sales generated $1 million in gross revenues for Vermont farms in 2011. Rural Vermont, a family farm and sustainable agriculture advocacy group, surveyed Vermont farmers who legally sell raw milk directly to consumers, thanks to a law passed three years ago.

Raw milk advocates already have legislation in progress in several states, including New Jersey, home to one of the outbreaks. Joining New Jersey are Indiana, Wisconsin and Kentucky. Idaho also proposed legislation to ease its strict rules on raw milk sales. In all, 15 states currently allow farms to legally sell unpasteurized milk, while 10 states permit retailers to sell it, according to Food Safety News.

The recent outbreak logs 36 confirmed cases of the potentially fatal Campylobacter infection in four states: Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia and New Jersey. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration disallows raw milk transport across state lines, and has required the mandatory pasteurization of all milk and milk products intended for human consumption since 1987, noting that "raw milk, no matter how carefully produced, may be unsafe."

The raw milk black market not so underground anymore

Raw milk enthusiasts have been actively promoting the product for years, and are often regarded as dairy deviants. But $1 million in sales in Vermont is an indication of exactly how popular the unpasteurized product is, and could add more fuel to the fire for proponents.

From a natural retailer perspective, is raw milk worth the hassle of having it in your store? Raw milk has a shelf life of 7 to 10 days and is largely a local food due to federal laws. While a conventional grocer may not be interested, an independent natural retailer might consider offering it in their store. But if you do, beware. A Connecticut Whole Foods was sued in 2009 after raw milk purchased at its store threatened the lives of three small children.

"Is a retailer, like Whole Foods, liable for paying millions of dollars to its customers if they are sickened by raw milk?" said Seattle attorney William Marler who represented two other Connecticut residents sickened by the raw milk. "The short answer is—hell yes."

The reality is, raw milk poses a significant food safety concern even if the number of incidences is small. According to the Centers for Disease Control, food borne illnesses resulting from raw milk account for .5 percent of all food borne illnesses, causing approximately 50 to 150 illnesses per year. This is among the 20,000 to 25,000 food borne illnesses reported annually, a drop in the bucket say raw milk advocates. Tell that to Whole Foods.

How about you? Are you for or against the sale of raw milk? Leave a comment.

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