Kara O'Connor And Shawn Pfaff Discuss Raw Milk Bill

Home » Here and Now » All Episodes » Kara O'Connor And Shawn Pfaff Discuss Raw Milk Bill

Kara O'Connor And Shawn Pfaff Discuss Raw Milk Bill

Premiere Date: 
September 13, 2013

The WI Farmers Union's O'Connor and the WI Safe Milk Coalition's Pfaff discuss the bill.

 

Episode Transcript: 

Frederica Freyberg:

Now to the state Capitol. Wednesday's hearing on a bill allowing the sale of raw milk attracted a herd of speakers, both for and against. The bill only allows raw milk sales on the farm itself. You won’t be seeing raw milk at grocery stores if it passes. Opponents say the unpasteurized milk is harmful and that an illness arising from Wisconsin raw milk could hurt the reputation of the state’s crucial dairy industry. But supporters claim raw milk has health benefits and that people should have the freedom to buy it. They also say Wisconsin would join most states and much of the world if it passes the bill. A similar bill passed in 2010 but Democratic Governor Jim Doyle vetoed it. Raw milk supporters hope this bill from Republican senator Glenn Grothman and Democratic representative Chris Danou gets the governor's signature. Joining us now are Shawn Pfaff from the Wisconsin Safe Milk Coalition and the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association, groups that oppose the bill. Kara O'Connor supports the bill. She represents the Wisconsin Farmers Union. Thanks to both of you for joining us.

Kara O’Connor:

Thank you.

Shawn Pfaff:

Thanks for having us.

Frederica Freyberg:

Busy week in the raw milk debate. Kara, first to you. Why do you favor this bill?

Kara O’Connor:

We support the bill for two reasons. First, it would open up some opportunities for dairy farmers. We know that there's a demand on the market for unpasteurized milk, and we want to give farmers as many opportunities as possible to develop new market opportunities. And second is a safety issue. We feel like we know that sales are occurring right now completely unregulated. And this bill has a couple of important provisions, number one, requiring that the milk meet grade A standards, and two, requiring the seller to register with the Department of Agriculture, that would improve the safety of a product that's already being consumed.  

Frederica Freyberg:

One follow-up to you before I get over to you, Shawn, and that is what is demand like for raw milk?

Kara O’Connor:

It's hard to say, again, because all these sales are taking place in a largely unregulated market. But anecdotally we know that some people who are buying unpasteurized milk are paying upwards of $10 a gallon. And that tells us that there's significant demand.

Frederica Freyberg:

All right. Shawn, why do you oppose this bill?

Shawn Pfaff:

Well, thank you for having me. the Wisconsin Safe Milk Coalition is a group that was created in 2010, kind of reactively at the time when then Democratic governor Jim Doyle was considering to veto the bill. Ultimately he did. There's two central tenets to why we oppose the bill. And you’ll see that in the groups that are in this coalition. One, we have significant concerns about the state's $26.5 billion dairy industry, an industry and a culture that we've worked on for more than 100 years, working with the university, dairy farmers all across the state. We are America's Dairyland. We have an internationally-known reputation. So that's the first tenet. The second tenet is we have teamed up with the public health community, and we think that this is an unsafe product based on what the Food and Drug Administration says. And in our organization, Frederica, we have groups from the Wisconsin Medical Society, the dietetics, the pediatricians, the cheese makers, the Dairy Products Association. I could go on with the list, the public health. You don't get the veterinarians lobbying too much with dieticians on stuff in the Capitol. That's why we are opposed to this bill, and we hope that lawmakers will not support it.

Frederica Freyberg:

Kara, the Center for Disease Control does say that people should not drink raw milk. They say that on their website citing thousands of people getting illnesses like E-coli, salmonella and listeria since 1998, and they're most concerned about children. Do you dispute that raw milk kind of can carry these pathogens and can make people sick?

Kara O’Connor:

It would be irresponsible to claim that no one ever became ill from drinking raw milk. But based also on the Center of Disease Control data we know that more people in the past five years have been sickened or seriously ill from spinach, sprouts or cantaloupe. And for that matter more people have gotten sick or died from drinking pasteurized milk products than raw milk products. So we need to have a serious and honest discussion about what the risk actually is. And to the point about the dairy industry, I think it's very important to note that of the top ten dairy-producing states in the United States, all but two, Wisconsin and Michigan, allow sales of raw milk. And in those rare instances where there have been illnesses due to raw milk, the bottom has not dropped out of those dairy markets. In fact, there hasn't even been a blip. So we feel confident that there-- that allowing limited sales, and this is a very modest bill, allowing limited sales of raw milk would not damage the dairy industry.

Frederica Freyberg:

What about that, Shawn? There's no precedent apparently for some kind of dairy industry to be  wreaked–

Shawn Pfaff:

Well, it's hard to tell what happens. We've heard impacts of salmonella occurred. Swine flu, what that did to the pork industry, and that wasn’t even about pigs. We’ve worked really hard in this. There’s tens of thousands of dairy farmers, or 12,000 dairy farmer in this state.  Not all of them support the passage to drink raw milk. Many of them oppose that. And they showed up at the Capitol because they maybe don't think it's safe, but also they want to make sure their product is fresh, nutritious. It can be organic as long as it's pasteurized. Many of those same farmers that testified on Wednesday, Frederica, said that they are pasteurizing their own milk to feed to their young calves on the farm because the unpasteurized raw milk isn't safe enough, they think,  and they've been told by nutritionists and animal nutritionists that it's not safe for the young calves to drink.

Frederica Freyberg:

And yet don't many dairy farmers and their families drink raw milk themselves?

Kara O’Connor:

Absolutely. A 2006 study by the University of Wisconsin found that at least half, over half of dairy farmers drink raw milk. So we're talking upwards of 5,000 farm families, day in and day out, drinking raw milk without incident, without fanfare, without precipitating a public health crisis. This is a product that can be consumed safely.

Shawn Pfaff:

That is allowed under state law in incidental sales. You can drink your own milk. Farmer Brown can drink his own milk every day. Farmer Brown's mom and dad who live up the road that used to be on the farm can come and get milk. That's incidental sales, no marketing, no real profit making off of it. That's allowed in state law. What many of the raw milk proponents want to do is make this wide open sales so they can get it out and sell it. And with Center for Disease Control and the public health community, these organizations that I listed, these aren't unqualified people to say it, physicians, doctors across the state, Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, Marshfield Clinic, all have joined the Safe Milk Coalition, and they are frankly a little surprised that we're having this conversation with all the facts. So many times we hear from lawmakers, and Kara and I work the Capitol halls a lot, many times on the same issue. And lawmakers always say, give us information based on science, not emotion and passion. And what you saw on Wednesday in the Capitol was the raw milk hearing, I think, was a success for the Safe Milk Coalition, us, because we were able to educate and bring out in force the real opponents to this issue and why our central message of the state's dairy brand as well as the public health.

Kara O’Connor:

Shawn's right, we agree on a lot of issues. But I just have to disagree with you on this one. First of all, there were far more people testifying in favor of the bill than against. And more specifically, they were testifying based on their actual experience of drinking raw milk. And when we talk about using data, we have to realize, and we have to acknowledge, that the data from other states simply does not bear out the fear-based claims of the opponents of this bill. Furthermore, we have to-- we have to look at the bill that we're talking about and realize that it's quite a modest proposal. There would be no retail sales in grocery stores. It would have to be direct sales on the farm, meeting grade A standards and registration with the state.

Frederica Freyberg:

Shawn, what about the argument that people should have the freedom to be able to buy what they want to feed to themselves and their families?  

Shawn Pfaff:

I get that, and that's why there's so much passion, the freedom argument. But, Frederica, I can't drive out of this studio and go 100 miles an hour to the beltline in Madison here. There's a law for speed limit. Sometimes maybe it isn't the most popular thing, but you have collective laws for the collective good. Not everybody can control where this product comes from. In fact, in southeastern Wisconsin a few years ago there was a birthday party in Racine County in one of the small school districts there. And one of the kids brought in cake and another person brought in milk, and of course kids are going to have cake and milk, and the milk was unpasteurized. The kids did not know that it was unpasteurized. Three or four of them became sick. One of them went to the hospital. You can't control where this product always come from. Now in incidental sales that's there are state law, you know Farmer Brown is producing the milk and you know where it comes from.

Frederica Freyberg:

I need to leave it there. I appreciate very much, both of you, for being here. Shawn Pfaff and Kara O'Connor, thank you.

Shawn Pfaff:

Thank you so much.

Kara O’Connor:

Thank you. 


We’d love to hear from you. Please send us your comment or story suggestion.

Get to know the Here and Now crew.

Find information on elections and candidates and connect to coverage from Wisconsin Public Television and Radio.