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Got (Raw) Milk? NJ's Surprising Split Over Pasteurization

Proponents of unpasteurized milk products claim health benefits and consumer rights, while opponents warn about salmonella and other milk-borne diseases.

Passions are running high in Trenton and throughout New Jersey these days over a topic that would not normally inspire strong feelings: milk.

Advocates of a bill (A-743) that would permit the sale of raw, unpasteurized milk in the state have been pushing for its final passage before the end of the legislative session next month. Opponents have been equally vocal.

Both sides packed a hearing last week of the Senate Economic Growth Committee, which needs to vote the bill out to get it to the floor of the upper house and then to the governor. Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), committee chair, announced at the start that the bill did not have enough votes to pass. After hearing a number of speakers on both sides of the issue, he promised to hold another hearing and call for a vote before time runs out. The Senate has called sessions for January 5 and January 9, but no committee hearings are scheduled yet.

The question is whether New Jersey should regulate and allow farms to sell raw milk and other unpasteurized dairy products to consumers.

Currently, 30 states allow raw milk sales, according to the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture. Of those 30, 13 restrict sales to the farm where the milk is produced. Five states have toughened quality standards for unpasteurized dairy products during the last three years.

Proponents say unpasteurized milk tastes better and attribute numerous health benefits to it -- from relief from allergies and asthma to curing cancer. At the very least, they say, the issue is one of consumers’ rights. There’s an economic argument, as well: Since New Jerseyans already buy raw milk by crossing the border to Pennsylvania or New York, where sales are legal, why shouldn’t farmers here be able to benefit from that business?

For opponents, the issue is strictly one of safety: Unpasteurized milk can carry such dangerous bacteria as salmonella, e. coli, and listeria. Both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn people not to consume raw dairy products, and the CDC states that doing so has led to more than 1,800 reported illnesses, 195 hospitalizations, and two deaths between 1998 and 2009.

While both sides engage in a heated debate, Assemblyman John DiMaio (R-Warren) and one of the bill’s sponsors, noted that the Assembly easily passed the measure last March after it was amended so that raw dairy products could only be sold at farm stands.

DiMaio, whose district includes some of North Jersey’s prime farmland, said allowing farmers who wish to sell raw milk products could help them stay in business. The Garden State still has 87 dairy farms, though that’s just a fraction of the 3,500 that were here in the 1960's.

“This would be a value-added product farmers can sell if they choose for $8-to-$10 a gallon at the farm,” DiMaio said. “This is a very simple bill that can help farmers remain viable.”

Dr. Ted Beals, a nationally known supporter of raw milk, told the Senate committee that while there is a risk of getting sick from raw dairy products, it is still very low: Of 10 million people consuming unpasteurized milk products each year, an average of 35 get sick.

“If this milk was as hazardous as it’s being portrayed, it would have been eliminated from people’s diets long, long ago,” he said.

Beals said part of what makes it safe is that consumers know and trust the farmers from whom they buy it and the farmers take proper precautions.

DeMaio’s bill would require the state Department of Agriculture to create a raw milk permitting program that would include testing of the cows and the milk, as well as state inspections. A permit fee would cover the costs of the program.

New Jerseyans who enjoy raw milk are passionate about it, starting with the hours they have to spend driving to another state to get it. Robin McConaughy, who runs Double Brook Farm in Hopewell with her husband Jon, said a group of mothers in the township have formed a carpool so that they take turns driving to Pennsylvania to pick up the milk each week.

“We are losing money to that,” said McConaughy, who would like to sell raw dairy products along with grass-fed beef and vegetables at her farm stand and, eventually, a restaurant. “As a farmer, it irks me … The people who are interested in it are going to get somewhere else.”

Joseph Heckman, a Rutgers University specialist in soil fertility, said he drinks raw milk because “it provides substantial relief from my allergies.”

McConaughy said drinking raw milk may have helped her son’s allergies, as well, but that’s not the main reason why she chooses raw dairy products.

“I believe it is a matter of choice and, for me, it’s a matter of taste,” she said.

But Drew Harris, chairman of the New Jersey Public Health Institute, said the issue goes beyond choice.

“People may have the right to consume what they want, but no one has the right to sell an unsafe product,” he said.

Harris said there are “collateral effects” that put more than just those who choose to drink raw milk at risk. A child or a food service worker who contracts e. coli from drinking raw milk can inadvertently spread it to others.

The health effects from consuming food-borne pathogens can range from diarrhea to kidney failure to death in extreme cases. Those most at risk, according to the CDC, are children, the elderly, pregnant women and anyone with a weakened immune system.

Dr. Lawrence D. Frenkel, a pediatrics and infectious diseases specialist, said pasteurization was seen as one of the major advances in health care in the last century because it takes pathogens out of milk.

“With the advent of pasteurization, the rate of diseases caused by milk and milk products plummeted to near zero,” he said. “It would be terrible for this committee and this legislature to set the clock back 100 years and put children, babies, and citizens at risk.”

After staying out of the fray, the New Jersey Food Council finally took a stand last week that is based at least partly on fears that a disease outbreak resulting from the consumption of unpasteurized dairy products could affect the council’s members, who are food retailers and suppliers.

Michael DeLoreto, the council’s government affairs director, said there have been 93 disease outbreaks resulting from eating or drinking raw milk products since 1998. Spinach sales in the state have not recovered five years after a listeria outbreak killed three and sickened 198 across the country and the spinach had not even been grown in New Jersey.

“There is a higher risk of illness from drinking raw milk,” DeLoreto said. “We believe that if illnesses are reported here, it would impact overall milk sales.”

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