AUGUSTA, Maine — Unlicensed raw milk producers determined to sell their dairy products will have to continue doing so under the radar after a bill to deregulate the micro-industry was vetoed this week by the governor.
On Monday night, Gov. Paul LePage vetoed “ An Act to Help Small Farmers in Selling Raw Milk Products.” On Tuesday afternoon, the Senate voted 17-16 in favor of overturning the veto, but it wasn’t enough to meet the two-thirds necessary to override.
Dairy producers in Maine are required to apply for licensing with the state and undergo facility and product inspections. The bill would have exempted licensing and inspection from farmers whose daily production of raw milk is 20 gallons or less.
Advocates for the bill — many of whom already are selling unlicensed raw milk illegally — said the deregulation was necessary to promote small-scale dairies that could not afford the infrastructure requirements necessary to pass state inspection.
Opponents, including dairy industry groups and some licensed raw milk producers, said the regulation was necessary to protect consumers from the dangers they say are associated with unpasteurized or “raw” milk.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration looks down upon the production and consumption of raw milk. Maine is one of 30 states to allow for any sale of raw milk, and one of only 12 states that allow its retail sale.
The Legislature approved the measure in June after the bill was amended to require raw milk producers operating under the exemption to regularly test their milk under rules that would be crafted the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
In a statement about the veto, LePage said he agreed with the spirit of the bill, if not the letter.
The governor took issue with allowing unlicensed raw milk producers to sell their products at farmers’ markets. He said he would support an amended bill that restricted sales to take place only at the producer’s farm.
“The ‘on farm only’ approach would reduce risk to overall public health because consumers would know the farmer who produced the milk, see and inspect the farm and hold the producer accountable for foodborne illnesses that are associated with unpasteurized milk,” LePage wrote.
The governor will propose a bill in the next legislative session, which begins in January, to meet those goals, said his spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett.
“It’s important to note the governor does support this bill in concept,” she said Tuesday, but “we need to have some assurance for the public health.”
The vetoed bill would have required that a raw milk seller test his product 10 times per year under rules that would be developed by the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. Bennett said LePage wants stronger testing requirements.
For example, LePage wants a more specific system to verify test results, she said.
“[The governor’s] staff worked with the Legislature to address concerns the governor had, but unfortunately we feel there were missed opportunities to address safety concerns,” she said. “With that said, we encourage the Legislature to continue to pursue a bill addressing all safety concerns.”
Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, sponsored the bill, but also voted to sustain LePage’s veto. The vote split mostly along party lines, with all but one Democrat (Sen. Linda Valentino of Saco) voting to overturn the veto, and all but one Republican (Sen. Brian Langley of Ellsworth) voting to sustain it.
“I can’t disagree with him, and I appreciate his support for the concept of the bill,” Saviello said Tuesday. “We look forward to getting it passed next year.”
In the meantime, Maine can expect the same farmers who have been flying under the radar and selling their unlicensed raw milk to continue doing so, said Deborah Evans, a Brooksville farmer and proponent of this bill and other measures for “local food sovereignty.”
“The interest in raw milk is skyrocketing,” she said Tuesday. “[Consumers] don’t need the state, in reality, to protect them from ‘bad milk.’”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.