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Having raw milk and drinking safely

Posted Dec. 04, 2011, at 7:42 p.m.

It’s curious that not one of Maine’s remaining 250 or so dairy farmers who earn their sole livelihood from dairying — and who struggle in a nightmare of rural hardships — is decrying the state’s requirement for licensing raw (non- or unpasteurized) milk for public sale.

Could it be these farmers know something others don’t? Those who portray as bogeymen Maine’s Department of Agriculture’s Quality Control and Assurance Division, the department’s dairy farmer commissioner, and the Food and Drug Administration?

As a consumer, I crave raw milk and love drinking it. Yet, I want it reasonably regulated so confidence exists that sanitation, proper cooling and herd health are enough of a concern to the dairy farmer to make him accountable through testing and licensure. Quality control standards just make sense, whether flying in an airplane, under the knife of a surgeon or drinking raw milk.

As a state-licensed dairy farmer who legally sells raw milk, both my husband and I find the state’s licensing requirements reasonable. Some facts:

We are tested monthly for herd health (somatic cell test), general bacteria levels (a sanitation indicator), coliforms (presence of e-coli and other fecal based bacteria), and antibiotics (penicillin, sulfur based drugs, etc.). A monthly test is conducted for Bang’s disease. The state pays for all of these tests. Cows are to be tested for TB every three years, a test largely reimbursed to us by the state.

All these tests are quality control indicators that guide us in selling our raw milk directly to our customers. Without these tests, I would be concerned and would not sell my milk nor would I be insurable for liability. No testing, and I am out of business.

Additionally, we must have running water for proper sanitization, both hot and cold water, a double-bowled stainless steel sink (one bowl to wash in, one bowl to rinse in), a milk strainer, a refrigerator to cool the milk to 36 degrees Fahrenheit, and an impervious bottling surface, such as Formica or stainless steel and an impervious floor, such as cement or vinyl (wood captures bacteria).

This investment is the price of doing business.

Our farm is inspected for cleanliness quarterly, our well water is tested yearly.

We have found these requirements reasonable as they are logical and strive to meet a balance between the farmer and the consumer’s needs.

There are 62 state-licensed raw milk dairymen in Maine, and about the same amount of state licensed cheese makers. Many of these dairy farmers, like my husband, some with as little as a two-cow herd, some with much larger, have had these family farms for generations and endured many hardships.

We can tell you about perennial poverty and its alternative of generational Herculean debt, the insidious sale of pieces of farmland, and health issues from overwork. Licensed raw milk sales, particularly, in the southern and coastal parts of the state, are helping many of these farm families to cope and begin to make ends meet. In many of our cases, it means the difference between a subdivision or keeping our lands productive with consumer access to local milk from a “heritage” family farm.

The state of Maine has enjoyed a long-standing clean public health record in selling its raw milk due to licensing. The FDA is aware of this and their current policy on raw milk is as follows: “in light of concerns that have been raised about potential FDA actions, we want to remind the public that FDA does not regulate the intrastate sale or distribution of raw milk. Whether to permit the sale and distribution of raw milk within a state is for the state to decide.”

So, it is left to the state of Maine’s Department of Agriculture to allow the safe sale of raw milk or ban it completely.

Lack of licensure will create a chain of events that will rock the Maine dairy industry. We are not Monsanto. We are your local farmer.

Joan Gibson and her husband Brian Call are dairy farmers in Levant, managing an 800-acre, 100-head operation, in existence since the early 1800s. They can be reached at juanagibson@juno.com.

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