At the Statehouse, lawmakers are split on whether to uphold the state Department of Agriculture's new rules governing raw milk. The department has come up with rules intended to protect the public. But the rules go too far, restricting farming operations doing business with consumers who willingly and knowingly consume unpasteurized milk.
Supporters of raw, or fresh, milk find the product is nutritious, contains beneficial bacteria and helps strengthen the immune system. Opponents say raw milk is harmful. Some advocate its complete ban.
The state Ag department, walking the line between competing interests, wants to regulate it and eliminate "a tremendous black market" for Idaho raw milk, said Marv Patten, the agency's dairy bureau chief.
Patten said the solution was to set a three-animal limit on the number of cows that could be used for raw milk. Those small farms would have to register with the state and submit to testing.
"I still think raw milk has its place," said Patten. "Milk is volatile. It lends itself to many more public health issues than veggies. The consumer has a reasonable expectation that they're not going to get sick."
Luana Hiebert of Heritage Farm in Cocolalla said the new rule is too restrictive.
"We're totally in favor of testing of the milk to make sure the bacteria count is reasonable," Hiebert said. But she wonders why the state would limit the number of cows to three. "With our little Jerseys, we produce six or seven gallons a day. We don't feel we would be endangering people any more if we had ten cows than if we had three."
Kjersti Tackett, a Rigby farmer, agrees. "I can understand them requiring testing. I think that's a good thing. If the quality is there and it's safe to drink, I don't think there should be a limit" on the number of cows.
Brent Olmstead, the lobbyist for Milk Producers of Idaho said the three-cow limit is a negotiated number and that a better number would be zero cows. If someone gets sick from drinking raw milk, it will reflect on the larger pasteurized milk industry. "We'll get blamed for something we didn't do," said Olmstead, and the industry will be out millions of dollars as a result.
Disclaimer: I used to work for the state Department of Agriculture. Having said that, I too wonder about the three-cow restriction. The state of Vermont has come up with a better standard which allows any number of cows but requires vigorous sanitary standards, monitoring and disclosure to the consuming public.
Patten is correct that people have an expectation that they're not going to get sick. It's unreasonable to expect consumers to test their milk when they get it home.
Government has a role to play here. But a simpler approach would be for the producer to disclose to the buying public the pros and cons of consuming raw milk. The consumer then assumes the risks. Telling producers that they can have only a very small a number of cows is limiting, arbitrary and unnecessary.