FEAR FUELS THE UTAH RAW MILK COW-SHARE DEBATE

 

The Utah State Legislature is currently considering a proposal to re-legalize raw milk “cow shares.”

Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 5.03.09 AMIn response to increasing consumer demand for raw milk, Representative Marc Roberts (R, Utah County), introduced HB 104, which would include cow-share owners under the same exception(s) that currently apply to anyone  currently milking a cow (or goat, etc.) and consuming its milk.  HB 104 is a very simple proposal to re-legalize cow shares, to allow consumers to have other legal options to make arrangements to satisfy their desire for raw milk.  Prior to the recent public hearing before the legislative subcommittee screening the proposal, a substitute bill was presented which would amend the previous proposal to include a limit on the size of cow-share arrangements to not more than five milking animals.   For those who attended the Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee Hearing on Friday (2/6/2015), regarding the proposed legislation, they learned that there is no limit to the fears that some people (including lawmakers) harbor about raw milk, and cow share arrangements.

Before addressing what happened at the hearing, a little background may be in order.  As noted in a previous article we posted about evolution of the raw milk debate here in Utah, if there is one aspect of the whole Food Freedom / Raw Milk debate that is undeniable, it is that consumer demand for raw milk is Screen Shot 2015-02-07 at 8.44.39 AMgrowing.  According to this Time Magazine article even back in 2007 consumer demand for raw milk was growing very rapidly.  Consequently, in 2007-2008, the Utah State Legislature took fairly bold steps to help meet the growing demand for raw milk, by allowing raw milk to be sold off the farm under certain very tightly controlled circumstances.  Several producers have taken advantage of that legislative overhaul to expand their operations and make raw milk more readily available in the metropolitan areas of the state, with much of that demand being met by Redmond Heritage Farms, which is one of the largest raw milk dairies in the state, and has self-owned retail outlets, operating “Real Food” stores in Salt Lake City, Orem, Heber City, and St. George, as well as on the farm, just outside the small town of Redmond, in Sevier County.  The owners of Redmond Heritage Farms are the same people who own the Redmond Salt Mine, located adjacent to the dairy, and produce Real Salt.  They have done much to change applicable raw milk laws, and make raw milk more readily available throughout the state.  Others, including the Bowler family, who own and operate Utah Natural Meat, are also moving in that direction, and in the process of developing a production and marketing operation that will be known as Utah Natural Milk.

But the simple reality is consumer demand for raw milk has continued to grow, and there is still a lot of unmet demand for raw milk throughout the state.  As demand continues to grow, consumers are looking for other options.  One consumer-driven solution is the concept of “cow-shares,” which allows consumers, many of whom live in urban areas and/or don’t have access to land, labor, expertise, and other resources to keep and milk their own cow, to join with others who are in the same situation, and pool their resources to acquire one or more milk cows (or goats, etc.), feed, equipment, etc., and enter into an agreement with a farmer, or even one of their own number who is in a position (has enough room and facilities, etc.), to keep, care for and milk a cow (or goat, etc.).  Unfortunately, when the legislature did the raw milk overhaul that helped loosen other raw milk marketing restrictions, it also enacted a one-size-fits-all blanket prohibition on any form of cow-share arrangement beyond the immediate family of anyone keeping milking animals for human consumption.  So, while the legislative overhaul was helpful in some ways, it has been harmful to raw milk consumers in others.

Screen Shot 2014-09-27 at 5.32.53 AMThe dynamic between the demand for raw milk and the conventional dairy industry has always been an interesting one.  And it’s not just here in Utah.  If there is one thing the conventional dairy industry seems to be deathly afraid of, it is raw milk.  That conflict is well documented.  But try as it might, the one thing the conventional dairy industry cannot ignore is the growing consumer demand for raw milk.   But industry representatives don’t speak on behalf of all dairy producers.

By now, the average person might be asking, “so why would anyone want to drink raw milk anyway?”  If you ask those who want it, there are a variety of reasons.  If you talk to very many people who belong to the growing group of raw milk consumers and advocates, one thing you will learn is that raw milk consumers and advocates are very passionate.  Another thing you will learn is that they have done their homework and are well-educated.  Contrary to the notion that they are making decisions based on naivete and lack of information, raw milk consumers know that it is an important decision, and they typically do a lot of homework to help them weigh the risks, and make an informed decision about whether or not to give raw milk a try.  And then, it is often the health benefits of raw milk that seal the deal.  It would be rare indeed to ever encounter a conventional, pasteurized milk consumer who is as passionate about the reasons why he or she prefers conventional, pasteurized milk as those who insist on raw milk. There are a variety of reasons why raw milk consumers are so insistent.  Many of them have had health issues, including lactose intolerance that they maintain are best addressed by drinking raw milk. If there is one thing they all believe, however, it is that they have a fundamental right and freedom of choice to make that decision for themselves, without having nanny-state governmental attempts to micro-manage every aspect of their lives, including fundamental aspects of their diet, like milk.

On Friday, the legislative subcommittee heard from those who are interested in the bill.  In addition to Representative Roberts, the primary presenters were Sarah Patterson from Red Acre Farm CSA in Iron County, and Paula Milby, also from Iron County, who addressed many of the fears and misconceptions about raw milk.  If there were two recurring themes that dominated the discussion and the questions and comments by lawmakers on the committee, they were: 1) fear, and; 2) a desire to micromanage people, their lives and choices to the maximum extent possible.

Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 6.38.48 AM

The current cow-share debate has been couched as a contest over fundamental property rights — which it is.  Many of those who presented public comments spoke to this issue, and expressed their desire to both have freedom of choice as to what they eat and drink, as well as the right to exercise fundamental personal property rights to acquire an ownership interest in one or more cows (or other animals), and be able to legally consume the raw milk produced by those animals.

Representatives from the Utah State Department of Agriculture and Food, Utah Farm Bureau, Utah Dairy Association, Utah Manufacturers Association, and other such representatives all made presentations attempting to fuel lawmakers’ fear of raw milk.   Some tried to soften their positions by attempting to say they believed in fundamental property rights, but simply didn’t believe the proposal was ready for “prime time” yet, and needed further study before it would be ripe for serious consideration.

Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 6.45.01 AMAnd the fears expressed by those opposing the bill actually paled by comparison to the fears expressed by some of the lawmakers on the committee.  Advocating the need for strict regulation, raw milk was compared to alcohol, not to mention other drugs, which are tightly regulated by the FDA.   Reference was made to marijuana, and fears about how far things could get out of control if anyone is allowed to produce and/or consume raw milk in an environment that is not strictly regulated and completely controlled, for the benefit of everyone.

One of the arguments dairy associations always make is that if and when there ever are any health issues or illnesses associated with the consumption of raw milk, the general milk consuming population is not smart enough to distinguish between raw milk and pasteurized milk, so they stop buying conventional pasteurized milk too, which hurts the overall dairy industry.  This argument is the functional equivalent of saying that because Toyota has had some issues and recalls, people quit buying cars all together.  If we lived in Texas, raw milk advocates would say “that dog won’t hunt.”

Paula Milby presented information, including statistics, seeking to address a number of these concerns.  The information she presented suggested that the hype associated with health concerns about raw milk, though real, might be exaggerated.

One lawmaker on the committee said he was a farmer, and wanted to support agricultural interests, but he was concerned about cow-shares because, in his words “it’s not just about the milk.” He wanted to know what happens when a cow has a calf?  What will happen to the calf?  Or what if they end up butchering the cow or calf?  What will happen to the meat?  Or what if they take the cow to the auction and sell her?  What will happen? And what if a cow is hit by a car?  Who will be liable?  Not to mention, what happens if someone were to get sick.  How are all these issues going to be addressed?  He said, “I think there needs something in place addressing [micromanaging] all these additional issues.”

Other lawmakers were concerned that people simply don’t understand how much milk a good cow can produce.  So they wanted to know what was going to happen with all the extra milk?  They were concerned that if there was extra milk people might try to give it to their neighbors, or even buy extra calves or pigs to feed the Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 5.01.31 AMmilk to, and in their view that could cause additional problems.

Others were concerned that if cow-shares were re-legalized, it would put all cows in the state at risk for Brucellosis and Tuberculosis.  Yet others were concerned about whether people attempting cow-shares would have enough room to deal with the animals.  They used Sara Patterson, who explained her situation, as an example.  Sara said that she had a very small farm of just two acres, on which she primarily grows vegetables, but also has four  small Dexter cows.  Lawmakers were concerned that she might not have enough room to support that many cows, and should have to have an extra CAFO permit for the cattle.

In a nutshell, many of the lawmakers who spoke and asked questions acted as if their primary objective was to try to micro-manage every aspect of people’s lives.  With respect to any real concerns about perceived health issues associated with the consumption of raw milk, one lawmaker on the panel offered some other statistics for Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 7.04.18 AMcomparison.  Based on the statistics he offered, the risk of drowning in one’s own bathtub, and a number of other equally benign causes associated with everyday activities, is far greater than the risk of dying from any reason related to consumption of raw milk.

Indeed, based on available statistics, there is evidence to support the reality that the risk of getting shot and killed by a law enforcement officer may be much greater than the risk of dying for any reason associated with consumption of raw milk.  All of this seems to raise serious questions about the hype associated with health concerns about raw milk, and suggests that such concerns might be exaggerated.

The primary organizational advocate of HB 104 is the Libertas Institute, which advocates for personal liberty and freedom of choice.  Libertas has gotten actively involved in the debate and is supporting HB 104.

For much of the hearing, based on the questions and concerns being expressed by members of the committee it appeared that the proposal would be voted down and would not make it out of committee.  As time began running short, however, and the number of commenters was limited, lawmakers were reminded to consider all the e-mails and phone calls they were receiving from constituents on this issue.  They engaged in some confusing procedural discussions, and then a vote was taken on the substitute bill (limiting cow-shares to 5 milking animals).  Although the debate among lawmakers made advancement of the measure appear to be unlikely, in the end they voted to advance HB 104 for further consideration.

This is a bill we will be following closely.  In our next piece in this series about the Raw Milk debate, we will offer some considerations and suggestions to lawmakers.