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Ask a ‘sotan: How does the state regulate buying raw milk?

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A cow chews its cud
A cow chews its cud as it munches on grass on a farm near Melrose, Minn.
Kimm Anderson | AP

Ask a 'sotan is an occasional series exploring the questions from curious Minnesotans. Have a question about life in Minnesota? Ask it here.

Food safety laws require that all dairy products sold for human consumption be pasteurized, with a few exceptions. Pasteurizing milk involves heating milk to kill bacteria that can make someone sick.

Selling raw dairy products has been controversial at times in Minnesota. In 2012, a southern Minnesota farmer accused of sickening more than a dozen people with raw milk products pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges tied to their sale.

In 2018, an estimated 33 cases of raw-milk related illnesses were recorded by the Minnesota Department of Health. So far this year, there have been 30 cases reported by the health department.

Still, some people want their milk untreated. We received a question about how Minnesota customers can legally purchase unpasteurized or raw milk.

Where can I buy raw milk in the Twin Cities? Are there any farmers that bring it in? ~ Mary DePrey

Farmers can’t ship or sell raw milk off their own property. Within the Twin Cities, you can’t legally purchase raw milk from a store or from a farmers market.

However, you can purchase raw milk directly from a willing farmer.

You have to go to the farm and bring your own container, said Nicole Neeser, director of dairy and meat inspection at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

“In Minnesota, our law requires that all dairy products are produced from pasteurized milk. It does allow an exception for raw milk purchased directly from a farm where it's produced for occasional sales, which basically means the farmer can't really be in a commercial enterprise of selling raw milk,” she said.

Rich Radtke is a farmer near Kerkhoven in west-central Minnesota who occasionally sells raw milk to customers. He told us he sees the value of requiring the customer to visit the farm.

“We feel that the customers should really get to know where their food comes from,” Radtke said. “Suppose there was a drop-site for raw milk, but the customer never saw how it was produced. Maybe it was produced in filthy conditions. They need to know the farm, the farmer and the equipment.”

Not every dairy operation is set to sell raw milk, Radtke told us. The more milk is handled, the greater the chance for contamination, he added.

Raw milk can contain pathogens such as E. coli or salmonella, which tends to be present in animal manure. A farm visit means the customer can check the cleanliness of the operation and talk to the farmer about how they try to prevent contamination of the milk.

The law is restrictive on purpose — so customers research raw milk, understand the risks and can serve as their own inspector when they purchase, Neeser said.

“We do understand that some people want this product, so there is a way to get it,” she said. “It’s just that we want to make sure people are aware of that before they make their purchasing decisions.”

Compared to other states, Minnesota falls slightly in the middle in its raw milk restrictions. A number of states outlaw raw milk sales completely. Others, including California, allow raw milk to be sold in retail stores.

Radtke said while he agrees with the state’s requirement to have raw milk customers head to the local farm, he said he thinks the current state law is too restrictive. For instance, advertising isn’t allowed, so farmers willing to offer raw milk must depend on word of mouth.

Have a question about life in Minnesota? Submit your question here.