PORTLAND, Maine — Raw milk and malt liquor are among the products to be allowed at the Portland farmers’ market after the City Council on Monday night expanded its list of approved market items.
Vendors lobbied for the change, arguing in part that fresh, unpasteurized cow milk is allowed in stores and many other farmers’ markets around the state.
Raw milk has not gone through the pasteurization process that slows microbial growth that can be dangerous to pregnant women, children, the elderly and those with weak immune systems. But the process also strips the milk of some of its natural nutrients and preservatives — such as the sulfate form of vitamin D3 — advocates told the council.
Heather Donahue, co-owner of the Pittsfield-based Balfour Farm, told the council Monday advances in farming over the past century have dramatically reduced the dangers associated with unpasteurized milk.
“At one time in our history, raw milk was a significant carrier of diseases because of how people were handling the cattle, and the condition of the people milking the cattle,” Donahue said. “Many, many improvements have been made in farm sanitation and farmer education.”
Other products no longer prohibited for sale at Portland’s farmers’ markets — after a pair of council votes Monday night — are hard ciders, wines and other unpasteurized dairy products. The items will be allowed at the markets with the caveat that they must be sold by Maine farmers, made from locally grown products and comply with state safety regulations.
The proposal to allow the hard ciders, wines and malt liquors comes partially in response to the recent passage of a state law allowing permitted farm winery operations to sell certain alcoholic beverages at farmers’ markets statewide. The council voted 8-1, with Councilor Jill Duson voting in opposition, to allow the alcoholic beverage sales at the farmers’ markets.
The farmers’ markets are held Wednesdays at Monument Square and Saturdays at Deering Oaks Park from April to November, and Saturdays inside the Maine Irish Heritage Center during the late fall and winter months.
Councilor John Anton proposed an amendment to the ordinance change striking the requirement that sellers of raw milk at the markets must also post information about the potential health dangers of the product. That amendment was passed by a 5-4 vote before the council voted unanimously to allow the unpasteurized milk sales.
Joining Anton in favor of the amendment were councilors David Marshall, Kevin Donoghue, Nicholas Mavodones and John Coyne. Voting against it were councilors Duson, Cheryl Leeman, Ed Suslovic and Mayor Michael Brennan.
“There’s clearly a public demand from consumers for raw milk,” Leeman said, “but I also think that if it’s going to be on public property and our health officials are telling us they’d feel more comfortable informing people [of the health risks], I don’t think that’s unreasonable.”
Douglas Gardner, director of the city’s Department of Health and Human Services, wrote to the council that “a higher risk of illness always exists from drinking raw milk, even when purchased from a licensed dealer, compared to pasteurized milk.”
“Even the quarterly product testing and the careful processing of raw milk does not provide the same level of safety as compared to pasteurization,” Gardner wrote in a memo to the council, in part. “According to the Federal Centers for Disease Control, raw milk is responsible for nearly three times more hospitalizations than any other foodborne disease outbreak.”
Anton said he proposed removing the requirement because he said it puts farmers’ market at a competitive disadvantage compared to area stores, which are not forced to post information about the health risks.
“My rationale is not to weigh in on the public health argument, instead my concern is that [rules are] being applied unevenly,” Anton said. “Vendors at the farmers market would be required to post this placard, but vendors in stores would not be required to post this placard. That seems unfair and arbitrary.”