Dairy groups last week quickly rebutted plans offered by two Congress members to legalize interstate sales of unpasteurized or raw milk, proposed as the "Milk Freedom of Act of 2014" and the "Interstate Milk Freedom Act of 2014."
Reps. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., and Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, proposed the bills, citing more freedom of choice for consumers.
The Milk Freedom and Interstate Milk Freedom bills, respectively, would prohibit the federal government from interfering with the interstate traffic of raw milk products, and prevent the federal government from interfering with trade of unpasteurized, natural milk or milk products between states where distribution or sale of such products is already legal.
The Representatives say the bills support farmers and consumers by removing barriers to the trade of raw milk for farmers who choose to market it, and allow consumers access to raw milk, which they say "may contain beneficial nutrients that have not been eliminated by the pasteurization process."
In FDA's hands
Federal rules do not bar all sales of raw milk, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has regulated the interstate sale of raw milk since 1987. Intrastate commerce in some states is still legal.
FDA's regulation is largely due to health risks. According to an FDA fact sheet, raw milk can harbor dangerous microorganisms that can cause illness. Citing an analysis performed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, FDA says more than 1500 people in the U.S. became sick from drinking raw milk or eating cheese made from raw milk between 1993 and 2006.
CDC data also found that raw milk is 150 times more likely to cause foodborne illness and results in 13 times more hospitalizations than illnesses involving pasteurized dairy products.
The FDA also suggests there is no meaningful difference between the nutrient content of pasteurized and unpasteurized milk.
Dairy groups, also citing CDC figures, say legalizing interstate commerce of raw or unpasteurized milk would improve availability, therefore increasing the number of sicknesses and deaths of people who consume it.
The International Dairy Foods Association and the National Milk Producers Federation in a joint press statement said the risks of raw dairy are "not worth any imagined benefits to either consumers or producers of unpasteurized milk products."
"If this measure passes, those most vulnerable to dangerous pathogens – children – are the ones who will suffer the most. The benefits of consuming raw milk are illusory, but the painful costs of illness and death are very real," Jim Mulhern, President and CEO of NMPF, said in the statement.
Connie Tipton, President and CEO of IDFA, added that the dairy industry relies on a high degree of consumer confidence, especially when considering food safety issues.
"While choice is an important value, it should not pre-empt consumers' well-being," she said.
The discussion about benefits and risks isn't anything new – several states are currently considering legislation to expand or legalize raw milk sales, a pro-raw milk group says. The same group, Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, also brought a lawsuit against FDA for its raw milk regulations, which was dismissed in 2012.
An amendment to eliminate mandatory pasteurization for all milk and milk products shipped across state lines also surfaced during farm bill discussion over the past two years, but did not make it to final drafts of the bill.
According to a Purdue University frequently asked raw milk questions update, milk usually does not harbor any harmful bacteria when it leaves a cow but can become contaminated from dairy equipment, dirt, manure or if not properly stored.