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Minn. lawmakers want to ease limits on raw milk sales

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Raw dairy products
Minneapolis residents Susan Allyn and husband Gary Beaver love the raw dairy products they get from a central Minnesota farm. They say the health benefits outweigh any legal risks posed by purchasing them.
MPR Photo/Jess Mador

Three Republican state senators are proposing legislation to legalize most sales of raw milk in Minnesota. 

The bill would permit direct farm-to-consumer sales of unpasteurized milk, including sales at farmers markets and at private homes. Current law allows sales of the product only at the farm which produced the milk. 

Raw milk supporters want state lawmakers to ease restrictions on the product, even though the state health department says consuming unpasteurized milk is a serious health risk.  

The proposal comes from Sens. Sean Nienow of Cambridge, Gary Dahms of Redwood Falls and Claire Robling of Jordan, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee. 

The legislation comes in the middle of a fight between state regulators and a southern Minnesota farmer over the issue. 

The state says raw milk sold illegally by dairy farmer Michael Hartmann has sickened at least 15 people with E. coli, campylobacter and cryptosporidium illnesses. 

Hartmann has denied the allegations, but last month a district court judge reviewed the evidence and said he has "no doubt" the state is right.  

The state's investigation of Michael Hartmann has caused an ever-widening debate over the wisdom of drinking the unpasteurized dairy product. 

The Hartmann case lead the agriculture department to crackdown on what they say are illegal deliveries and sales of raw milk at Twin Cities drop sites.  

State law bans all but occasional sales and only at the farm where the milk is produced  With the crackdown, most of those drop-site sales have ended.  Raw milk supporter Greg Schmidt of St. Paul says many adherents are now driving several hours to a farm to get unpasteurized milk.

"This is a legal product in the state," Schmidt said.  "But this burden that forces consumers to go to the farm to procure it just doesn't make any sense on any level."

Schmidt welcomes the proposed legislation because it would allow raw milk sales at farmers markets as well as homes.   

None of the bill's three co-sponsors could be reached to discuss the legislation.  The bill will serve as a forum to debate the merits and risks of drinking raw milk.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 1,700 illnesses and 2 deaths were traced to raw milk over the decade ending in 2008. 

There's  a growing debate nationally over whether and how to regulate raw milk, as natural, unprocessed foods grow in popularity. State laws on raw milk vary widely.  Wisconsin, which bans sales, last year empaneled a large working group to study the issue. A report is expected next month. 

Already lining up against the new Minnesota bill is the Minnesota Milk Producers Association, which represents the state's conventional dairy farmers, those who pasteurize their milk.  

Association Executive Director Bob Lefebvre says any bill allowing easier sales of raw milk is a bad idea.

"That's a very dangerous thing to do," he said.  "And we shouldn't go there."

Lefebvre said if anything, the state should tighten regulation of raw milk even more.  He said any farm selling the product should be regularly inspected and tested by the state, something that doesn't occur now.  

Lefebvre and others say study after study has shown that raw milk is a health risk.  Supporters though argue they should be allowed to decide for themselves whether to accept those risks and buy the product.