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Ohio becomes epicenter for raw milk controversy
Ohio Correspondent

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Ohio legislature has become the focal point of controversy surrounding the sale of raw milk in Ohio intensifies.

Supporters of raw milk sales claim raw milk can be both safer and healthier than pasteurized milk and can help consumers avoid health conditions such as asthma, tooth cavities, diabetes, attention deficit disorder, osteoporosis and other ailments. In addition, they claim it can provide a niche market for Ohio dairy farmers and that the state’s current raw milk ban unnecessarily restricts consumer choice.

Opponents, however, claim that the consumption of raw (unpasteurized, “straight-from-the-cow”) milk can lead to diarrhea and vomiting from salmonella, E. coli, listeria or other pathogens. A bill currently pending in the House Agriculture Committee would allow licensed farmers to sell raw milk directly to consumers - and bill advocates have been singing the praises of raw milk to legislators.

“There’s a safe way to produce milk and produce raw milk,” said Christina Trecaso, who leads the Weston A. Price Foundation’s Ohio chapter.

The foundation is a national organization that advocates a diet of nutrient-dense whole foods and is an advocate for House Bill 534. The Weston A. Price Foundation contends that raw milk is one of the safest foods in the food supply, and the promise that pasteurization protects consumers against pathogens is not true.

However, the Federal Drug Administra-tion, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Medical Assoc. and other organizations recommend against drinking raw milk. Pasteurization, which has been used for 90 years, heats milk to 161 degrees F. for 15 seconds to kill off potentially harmful bacteria.

Scientists claim extensive scientific studies support the benefits of pasteurization and far outweigh the benefits of raw milk. The FDA reported that 200 people in the U.S. became sick from drinking raw milk in 2002.

Currently, it is only legal for raw milk retailers who have continuously sold raw milk prior to 1965 to continue to do so.

Because it is illegal to sell or give away raw milk in Ohio, but not for consumers to drink raw milk from animals that they own, several small farms throughout the state have developed a method to circumvent the issue - they have instituted shared ownership of cows, goats and even entire herds. However, these agreements are currently facing strict scrutiny from the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

One such case involves the investigation of Paul and Carol Schmitmeyer of Versailles, Ohio, who operate a Grade A licensed dairy farm and manage a herd-share program consisting of more than 150 shareholders and their families, representing 400-500 raw milk consumers. In January, two of their consumers were diagnosed with campylobacter, triggering a food-borne illness investigation.

In February, the ODA subpoenaed the Schmitmeyers for a deposition in reference to the production, handling, labeling, sales, holding and distribution of their milk and dairy products and requested that they bring all documents relating to boarding contracts, cow-share agreements, herd-share agreements along with other documentation of their milk handling activities.

In another case, an Amish dairy farmer from Millersburg who had been operating a small herd-share program of about 20 shareholders provided milk to an undercover enforcement agent in September for a $2 donation. Arlie Stutzman had held a Grade B manufactured milk producers’ license, allowing him to sell milk to cheese-manufacturing plants for 12 years.

Following a series of hearings and recommendations, the ODA revoked Stutzman’s license in February, and Stutzman did not appeal the decision, citing among other reasons the cost of the appeal. Several state legislators joined Stutzman’s cause, looking into ODA’s investigative practices, and Stutzman was able to reapply for his license a few weeks following the suspension, which he received.

The ODA is, however, seeking a permanent injunction to keep Stutzman from selling raw milk with the hearing scheduled for June 30.

The Ohio Farm Bureau Federation supports the legalization of raw milk.

Rocky Black, the organization’s director of legislative affairs, acknowledges that it is a controversial issue.

Black said the testimony presented to the House Agriculture Committee supporting raw milk sales was well organized and lawmakers were left with the feeling that “this isn’t the huge risk we thought it was.”

“There’s definitely a strong feeling in the House that they want to take a hard look at this bill,” Black said.

ODA Director Fred Dailey said he disagreed with raw milk advocates but described them as “good, honest, hardworking people.” “If people think raw milk makes them feel better, I’m not here to argue,” Dailey told legislators.

“But the fact remains that people are going to get sick, and the public will want to hold someone responsible.”

More hearings are expected on this issue, and with summer recess almost here, fall seems to be the earliest action can be expected on this bill. Though illegal in Ohio, 28 states allow some type of raw milk sales.

This farm news was published in the June 7, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.