“Sunup to sundown.” That’s how Jennifer Holmes describes her typical work day on a Montana dairy farm.
Holmes has been a dairy farmer for 15 years. Mountains surround her farm of about 85 cows that are milked twice a day. She is married and has a five-year-old son, but “he’s not milking—yet.”
Holmes recently testified before the Montana Legislature House Agriculture Committee in favor of House Bill 574. The bill would permit small farms of fewer than 15 cows, 30 goats, or 30 sheep to sell unpasteurized milk, also known as raw milk, on their property. Farmers would have to fix warning labels to their products saying they are unpasteurized, but nothing more. Any dairy could sell raw milk if it satisfies strict Grade A regulations—typical of store-bought, pasteurized milk.
The House passed the bill 96-3 last month, and now it is in the Senate. Republicans control both bodies. The bill could immediately affect some 150 small farms across Montana.
The Food and Drug Administration banned most interstate sales of raw milk in 1987. Since then, 32 states have legalized raw milk sales within their borders. Montana would become number 33. But the current version of HB 574 requires no testing and makes consumers liable—not the state or producers—so Montana would become one of the most lenient states in the nation regarding raw milk manufacturing.
Advocates say unpasteurized milk has more enzymes and nutrients than pasteurized milk. Others cite anecdotes or personal testimonies of raw milk drinkers who overcame health problems from tooth decay to autism. One European study found that raw milk consumption might help prevent asthma or eczema, but it emphasized the need for more research. Some cancer patients think raw milk might help them.
U.S. scientific studies state that raw and pasteurized milk are equal in health benefits, but that raw milk contains more pathogens and causes far more health outbreaks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention condemns unpasteurized milk: “Raw milk can carry harmful germs that can make you very sick or kill you. If you’re thinking about drinking raw milk because you believe it has health benefits, consider other options.”
Rep. Champ Edmunds, R-Missoula, is the primary sponsor of HB 574. He grew up working on a dairy farm and drinking raw milk, and calls the bill a “freedom issue.” Farmer Holmes, interviewed by phone, suddenly yells, then apologizes: “Dog is chasing the chickens!” She worries that the current, amended version of the bill doesn’t require testing of animals and products for potential health risks: “Could be a bit of a PR nightmare” if anyone gets sick. The Department of Livestock fears such a mandate would cost the state too much money.
Another farmer, Jeff Lewis, has 260 cows producing for his Grade A dairy. He drinks unpasteurized milk from his own animals and says, “I have no problems with Grade A dairies selling raw milk”— but letting dairies take fewer precautions is bound to get someone sick.