AUGUSTA, Maine — The House of Representatives has given final approval to a bill that would deregulate the production and sale of raw milk and raw milk products, leaving only a routine Senate vote on the bill before it heads to the governor to be signed into law.
The Senate has already approved an earlier version of the bill, and was expected to vote again on that version — and a clerical amendment — Wednesday night or Thursday.
Unless it is vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage, the bill will allow unlicensed farmers to sell up to 20 gallons of raw, or unpasteurized, milk per day, or process for sale the same amount of raw milk into cheese, butter, cream or kefir. Currently, it is illegal to sell raw milk without licensing, which requires state inspection and testing.
Efforts to gauge LePage’s intent were unsuccessful, but Heather Retberg, a Penobscot farmer, said she and several other proponents of the bill met with the governor in January.
“He expressed then that he wanted to do whatever he could to make the rules more friendly to farmers trying to feed their communities,” she said. “So we’re confident that he’s standing behind us.”
The farmers would be allowed to sell their products from their homes or farm stands, or at farmers markets, but not for wholesale. The milk must be clearly labeled as not pasteurized, with contact information for the farmer and a statement that the product is exempt from licensing and inspection.
An amendment, originally proposed by the Department of Agriculture as a compromise and approved by both chambers, would require that the milk products be tested 10 times per year by “an accredited laboratory.” The amendment also directs the department to develop more specific rules for testing and penalties for failed tests.
Proponents of the bill have rallied around Dan Brown, a Blue Hill farmer who was sued by the state for selling unlicensed, unlabeled raw milk. Brown has become a cause celebre in the local food sovereignty movement, but lost his case recently in Hancock County Superior Court.
He said Wednesday that he’s happy the law has passed and that he hopes it will eventually clear the way for him to sell milk again. In the meantime, he’s not holding his breath.
“My understanding is it won’t really help me in my lawsuit because, in their opinion, when I was doing it, this law hadn’t been passed,” he said. Brown also said that even if the governor signs the bill into law, it could be months before the law takes effect.
Most non-emergency laws take effect 90 days after the Legislature adjourns. So the change for raw milk dairies won’t hit the books until around September.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Franklin, said his bill recognizes the role played by small-scale farmers, and makes room for them within Maine’s regulatory environment. Proponents have said the requirements for dairy facilities — including an outbuilding with hot running water, concrete floors and sanitation and refrigeration equipment — price the smallest farmers out of the market.
“This helps the small producers,” Saviello said recently. “If they do grow, and they have to go get licensed [because they exceed the 20-gallon limit], then that’s great. But this lets them get started.”
But one effect of the bill’s passage into law is still unclear. Because the federal Food and Drug Administration considers unpasteurized dairy products a potential public health risk, some dairy farmers are concerned their insurance premiums will rise along with deregulation.
The risk, they say, is that if one bad batch of raw milk enters the market, it will sully the image of all milk produced in Maine.
“Insurance regulators have signaled that raw milk is more of a liability than they want to take on,” said Julie-Marie Bickford, executive director of the Maine Dairy Industry Association. “It’s too soon to tell whether insurance companies are going to delineate between one licensing model and another. But it’s a huge concern.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.