Montana Rep. Champ Edmunds, R-Missoula, grew up drinking raw milk. His family operated a small dairy near Pinewood, S.C., and to this day Edmunds says he’s “a fan.” So when Bitterroot resident Chris Rosenau approached Edmunds with a bill legalizing the sale of raw milk in Montana, Edmunds gladly took up the issue.
“Raw sounds so bad,” says Edmunds, a 2014 candidate for the U.S. Senate. “Really it’s just fresh, natural milk.”
House Bill 574 passed the House with 96 votes March 26. The measure would create permits exempting small dairies—those with fewer than 15 lactating cows—from various government regulations, and enabling them to sell unpasteurized milk on premise only to consumers. In the simplest terms, Edmunds says, “it allows somebody who owns a cow to sell milk to somebody who doesn’t.”
For opponents of the bill, however, the issue is far more complitcated. Concerns voiced in testimony last month ranged from increased competition for larger milk producers to the potential for outbreaks of disease among humans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, raw milk is “at least 150 times” more likely to cause outbreaks than pasteurized milk. Christian Mackay, executive director of the Montana Department of Livestock, said pasteurization requirements are the state’s primary safeguard against brucellosis spreading to humans.
“This bill would leave the backdoor open,” Mackay testified, “and make undulant fever a human health concern once again.”
Rosenau counters that her original draft of HB 574 actually included brucellosis and tuberculosis testing requirements for raw milk. The language was removed after the DOL’s testimony that the testing provision would cost the state nearly $300,000 a year.
“Thing is, now it’s too late in the process...to add those testing parameters back in,” Rosenau says. “It’s sort of like DOL cut their nose off to spite their face.”
HB 574 was instead amended to require small dairies to post warning labels, a move Edmunds believes will adequately address health risks. He adds the labels will also protect the state by transferring liability to the consumer.
The bill has yet to go before the Senate Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation Committee.