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Milk bill struck wrong balance

Op-Ed

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I did not come to Sacramento to tell people what to do.
California has too many costly regulations -- especially on small businesses -- and streamlining the bureaucracy that hobbles our state is one of my top priorities. If I see an opportunity to make life simpler for a family business, and especially a family farmer, I'll grab it almost every time.
But when we change laws -- even if we're relaxing them -- we need to make sure the end result is fair to everyone involved and strikes a sensible balance between the public interest and the private burden. A recent bill, AB 2505, that would have allowed small home dairies to legally sell raw milk didn't pass those tests.
Unpasteurized milk has surged in popularity the past few years. Its fans admire its rich flavor and claim to enjoy dramatic nutritional benefit.
But the science is clear about one thing: Pasteurization kills bacteria and other pathogens -- Salmonella, E. Coli, Listeria -- that can cause wicked illnesses and even death. Raw milk is a high-risk product. Seventeen states ban its sale for human consumption entirely. The Food and Drug Administration long ago halted interstate sales of raw milk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that foodborne illness is 150 times more likely when consuming unpasteurized milk. The American Academy of Pediatrics early this year strongly recommended that pregnant women, infants and children never drink raw milk.
No, the experts from the government and the medical establishment aren't always right. They don't always know everything, and they don't get to make all of our decisions for us anyway. But those risks are serious and real, and it's appropriate for the law to take them into account. The Legislature recently eased regulations on the sale of "cottage foods" -- breads, jams, candies and the like -- to allow more entrepreneurs to launch businesses out of their home kitchens, but that law specifically targeted foods that pose little risk. We want to encourage start-ups, not stomach bugs.
Compared with strawberry jelly, milk, even when pasteurized, is prone to spoilage and bacterial contamination. Because of the hazards, dairies are rigorously inspected by the California Department of Food and Agriculture so families can confidently buy a gallon of milk without worrying about whether they'll land in the hospital. Unlike most states, California also allows retail sales of raw milk -- your neighborhood health food store probably carries it -- so long as the dairies follow similar safety rules.
The recent raw milk bill, unfortunately, would not have included those safeguards. It would allow sales without inspections and without the fees that support the milk-safety program, which would leave producers who've been playing by the rules at an unfair disadvantage.
Proponents argue that small home dairies -- at most three cows or 15 goats -- don't have the same risk as big commercial operations. I understand that these small herds produce milk for their owners' own families, and that their owners care deeply for the animals' health. But that devotion, as reassuring as it is, is not a laboratory test. And the heightened risks of raw milk are substantial enough that, if it's being sold to the public, the public needs reasonable protections. You might think a cow or a jug of milk looks perfectly healthy, but dangerous micro-organisms don't always advertise their presence.
What people choose to eat and drink is their own business. But it's important to have a level playing field for producers and basic safety assurances for our food supply.
I am more than open to exploring ways to make life easier for micro-dairies and the milk buyers who love them, but it won't help anyone -- including raw-milk producers -- if we put more unwitting consumers in the hospital.
Brian Dahle, R-Bieber, represents the 1st Assembly District, which includes Shasta, Lassen, Nevada, Siskiyou, Modoc, Plumas, and Sierra Counties, and portions of Butte and Placer Counties.


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