HELENA — Twelve-year-old Riley Sabo of Harrison told a legislative committee Thursday if it was legal to sell raw milk in Montana, he could make money from his Jersey cow and help pay for college — and that the fresh milk shouldn’t be considered a health hazard.
“I’ve grown up on raw milk,” the soft-spoken youngster told the House Agriculture Committee. “I milk our cows every morning before school. I like the flavor. Store-bought, pasteurized milk tastes flat to me, and I usually get a stomachache and feel bad when I drink it.”
Sabo joined a cadre of raw-milk consumers, small farmers and some health professionals who supported a bill allowing the sale of raw milk in Montana, calling it a healthy alternative to pasteurized milk products.
But state livestock, milk-industry and public health officials came out strongly against the measure, saying raw, unpasteurized milk can cause foodborne illnesses, and that an outbreak in Montana would hurt the industry.
“We are concerned about the Pandora’s Box that would be opened if a consumer has a bad experience from consuming raw milk,” said Mark Meyer of the Montana Milk Producers Association. “It would negatively impact the milk industry as a whole here in Montana.”
Before a packed hearing room at the Capitol, the two sides testified for more than an hour on House Bill 574, which is sponsored by Rep. Champ Edmunds, R-Missoula.
The bill would allow dairy herds of less than 15 producing cows, 30 goats or 30 sheep to be exempt from the state law that says all milk sold in Montana must be pasteurized.
Small farms could sell their fresh, unpasteurized milk directly to consumers, as long as they submitted to periodic health testing of their product and animals.
Rep. Lee Randall, R-Broadus, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said the panel won’t act for “a while” on the bill, because he expects several amendments to be drafted and proposed.
Edmunds said his bill merely gives consumers the choice to buy products that they deem safe and healthy — and noted that state law allows farmers to drink raw milk that they produce.
“If it’s so horrible, then why don’t we outlaw it for everyone?” he said. “Or do we just not care about people who own their own cows?”
Sabo’s mother, Jenny Sabo, said Montana’s small farmers are responsible and can produce small, safe batches of milk for sale, and that she gets inquiries every month from people who want to either buy cows to build their herd or buy raw milk.
Jennifer Holmes, part owner of a small dairy farm in Ravalli County, said raw milk sales are already happening, and that HB574 would make them safer, boost the economy in rural areas and encourage consumption of local food that is not processed by giant companies.
“It’s a huge step toward food security,” she said. “It would make food more easily trackable. … People would know exactly where they’re getting it.”
Leading the opposition to the bill was Christian Mackay, the executive officer for the state Board of Livestock.
Mackay said sales of raw milk have led to dozens of outbreaks around the country of bacterial and other diseases like e coli, and that any claims of health benefits from its consumption are “largely anecdotal.”
He said the bill exempts small producers from a number of sanitation and quality regulations, and that the state could be liable if someone gets sick or harmed from raw milk purchased under the bill.
“I’m proud that Montana milk producers (currently) produce a product that’s not going to get children sick,” Mackay said. “You’re inviting problems by allowing this.”