Co-ops: Raw milk sales "Russian roulette"

Cooperative NetworkLegislation authorizing sales of unpasteurized milk could jeopardize both public health and public confidence in the safety of products from the largest segment of Wisconsin's agricultural economy, witnesses testifying on behalf of the state's cooperative businesses told a State Senate committee Wednesday.

Representatives of Cooperative Network, a statewide trade association encompassing all varieties of cooperatives in Wisconsin and Minnesota, issued warnings at a Capitol news conference and later, in a hearing of the Senate Committee on Financial Institutions and Rural Issues.

The committee gathered to take testimony on Senate Bill 236, creating exemptions from the current prohibition on sale of raw milk or raw milk products, and from existing licensing and testing requirements for milk and milk products offered for sale to the public.

In prepared testimony, Cooperative Network warned of "potential damage to the public image of milk and the dairy industry if legislation like SB 236 results in more illness, thereby worrying the general public about the safety of milk and other dairy products."

Sickness caused by milk-borne pathogens not eliminated by pasteurization could cause "immense and even irreversible" damage to the state's number-one agricultural industry, the organization warned.

The legislation would lift the prohibition on raw milk sales if they are conducted only on the farm, the farm is registered with the state Ag Department for raw milk sales and sells no other milk or milk products, provides clean containers and posts notice on the containers and the property that the milk offered for sale is unpasteurized.

Dodge County dairy farmer Bob Topel, who serves as a Cooperative Network Director and Board Secretary, presented testimony both in the hearing and at the earlier news conference citing "a keen interest in helping to protect the Wisconsin dairy industry's rightful image as a source of healthy and wholesome dairy products."

Topel noted that the proposal would exempt raw milk sellers form obtaining milk producer licenses and Grade A permits, and from state regulatory inspection, giving them "a free pass to sell a potentially dangerous food product on their farms to the consuming public."

"While the vast majority of consumers could see no ill effects, the fact that this raw product is being offered through SB 236 without significant safeguards means a type of ‘Russian roulette' would be faced by consumers," Topel said.

Cooperative Network's two-state membership has endorsed a resolution opposing sale of raw milk on or off the farm, citing a "strong interest in maintaining the highest health and safety standards for dairy products."
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