Citing overwhelming evidence of the health risks, lawmakers on Wednesday rejected a bill that would allow small farms to sell or give to friends portions of raw dairy products.
Assembly Bill 2505 by Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, D-Davis, would allow small farms to sell or give away fresh-from-the-udder, unpasteurized milk without complying with some of the standards that apply to larger dairies.
The bill would only have covered farms with three or fewer cows, or up to 15 goats. Yamada said it is unfair to hold "home dairies" to the same standards that govern commercial dairy distributors, effectively barring small farmers from a long-running tradition of sharing or selling their milk.
"Currently these families who for some generations have been engaged in this practice have no recourse under current state law to offer this raw milk to anyone," Yamada said in testimony before the Assembly Agriculture Committee.
While some raw milk advocates tout the superior taste and health benefits of consuming unadulterated dairy, much of the testimony on Wednesday stressed unburdening small-scale farmers of needless regulation.
"If we continue to undermine and criminalize farmers, who produce food directly farm-to-consumer, California will continue the trend of declining family farms," dairy rancher Doniga Markegard testified.
That argument did not convince committee members. While the chair, Assemblywoman Susan Eggman, D-Stockton, backed the measure on the principle of "people's ability to make their own choices," opponents - including Republicans - said the risk, in this case, outweighed the economic freedom argument.
"If you want to drink unpasteurized milk, buy a cow, milk the cow and drink the milk," said Assemblyman Brian Dahle, R-Bieber. "We don't like to get into what people do at home - that's your business - but when you start selling it, that's our business."
Yamada said her bill would bring small dairies under an umbrella of standards that would minimize the risk of health issues, including rules around storing the milk, annually testing cows, sanitizing milking equipment and ensuring that anyone who interacts with the animals take certain safety precautions.
"We believe that raw milk, when it's responsibly produced, is not inherently dangerous," said Cynthia Daley, a professor of agriculture at the California State University, Chico. "Fresh milk products," she added, "have been part of our staple diet and have been part of many successful cultures over the course of human history."
But medical professionals warn about the risk of spreading illnesses that can hospitalize and in some cases kill. A Centers for Disease Control study found the incidence of outbreaks soaring for raw milk, with unpasteurized dairy products causing outbreaks at 150 times the rate of treated milk products.
"From a public health standpoint, raw milk is a uniquely dangerous product, particularly for the young and the immuno-compromised," testified Michael Payne, a researcher at the University of California's Western Institute for Food Safety and Security. He called Yamada's bill a "public health disaster" for offering to exempt dairy farms from licensing requirements and inspections.
A coalition of health and food industry associations lined up against the measure, including the California Farm Bureau Federation, the California Medical Association and the Western United Dairymen, as did individual dairy companies like Land O' Lakes.
A Murrieta woman named Mary McGonigle-Martin described her then-six-year-old son's "odyssey through hell" after drinking raw milk and becoming hospitalized at a cost of $550,000. She faulted Yamada's bill for failing to adequately guard against the spread of pathogens.
"Just because you are milking three cows doesn't mean a small operation cannot contaminate the raw milk," McGonigle-Martin said.
Lawmakers opposing the bill voiced similar concerns. "I think you are putting your children, particularly those under five, at great risk," Assemblyman Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, told supporters, "and I wish you would stop it.
PHOTO: Cattle belonging to a rancher in Lincoln do some ambling on May 10, 2011. The Sacramento Bee/Renée C. Byer.