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Raw Milk Battle Divides Maine's Dairy Industry

AUGUSTA, Maine - Maine’s dairy industry is split over proposals to make it easier to sell raw milk in Maine. It's an issue that has drawn lengthy legislative debate in the past and is likely to again. But this year, state agriculture officials say they're prepared to relax licensing rules in some cases.

Lawmakers are considering two bills on raw milk sales. One has long been sought by advocates who call themselves members of Raw Milk Nation. It would exempt dairy farms from state licensing and inspection requirements if they produce less than than 20 gallons of milk a day for sale at their farms or at farmers' markets. Betsey Garrold represents the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund.

"If folks are selling milk and other dairy products face to face with their friends and neighbors and family, they are going to be very careful about the quality of that milk," Garrold said. "There is no need for the superfluous intervention of a dairy inspector to assure that milk is the best and healthiest a farmer can provide."

But not all dairy farmers share that view. Several sided with Saco farmer Alison Leary, who said the current laws allowing the sale of raw milk by licensed farmers are working and should not be changed.

"Raw milk poses potential risk, as do products made from raw milk, especially if handled improperly or obtained in unsanitary conditions," Leary said. "If you take away the basic regulation put in place for raw milk producers you are increasing the possible dangers, or could be, to unsuspecting consumers."

That position was echoed by many agricultural trade groups, including the Maine Cheese Guild, which argues that the current law requiring licensing, at $25 a year, and inspections, is working well. Eric Rector is president of the guild.

"This bill seeks to meddle in state law that has worked very well for many decades, and is the envy of many small farmers in other states," Rector said. "In the opinion of the Maine Cheese Guild, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it."

The second bill under consideration is more narrowly crafted. It would exempt dairy farms only if the raw milk is sold directly to consumers at the farm. There could be no advertising of the product and farmers would have to take a dairy sanitation course. Unlike past proposals to loosen regulations, the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry is supporting this measure. Ron Dyer is the director of Quality Assurance and Regulations.

"We believe the bill before you attempts to meet a balance by insuring an informed consumer is buying directly from their farmer," Dyer said. "A key element to us is that it is being sold only at the farm. Both the farmer and consumer will be fully aware the product is not pasteurized, based on the labeling requirements in the bill."

While that is enough for Dyer, others raised concerns that any outbreak of illness caused by the sale of raw milk will hurt the entire dairy industry, and that is a risk they don’t want to take. Gary Anderson of the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension Service testified on the bills without taking a position on whether they should be approved.

"Although we can appreciate aspects of this bill to support small dairy businesses, if raw milk licensing and inspection are exempt, these small farmers will not receive education and suggestions to maintain a sanitary environment, which may increase the risk of food-borne illnesses associated with unpasteurized dairy products," Anderson said.

The committee will now consider the bills in work session and it's likely at least one in some form will go to the full Legislature for its consideration later this session.