Raw Milk Bill has Bipartisan Support

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Raw milk may be making a comeback in Little Rhody.

Raw milk is simply milk bottled directly from a cow or goat. Today nearly all milk is pasteurized before bottling in order to destroy potentially harmful bacteria. Advocates, however, tout the many health benefits of raw milk.

Raw milk was the only milk until pasteurization became the standard in the early- to mid-1900s. Currently, 18 states prohibit the sale of raw milk. All five other New England states allow limited sales.

During a recent Senate hearing, Sen. Nicholas Kettle, R-Coventry, sponsor of the Raw Milk Act (pdf), said raw milk is another product local farmers can sell to stores or at farmers markets.

In a letter to the Senate Committee on the Environment and Agriculture, the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) wrote that it has “significant health concerns” about raw milk. The risks include pathogenic microorganisms that can kill or sicken humans. Potential illnesses include bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis, salmonella, E. coli and listeria.

“Considering the danger of exposure to these pathogens, there is little assurance that can be offered to any consumer of raw milk that the animal population from which the milk originated is safe,” DEM director Janet Coit wrote.

The threat of illness and disease also creates the potential for farmers to get sued, Coit said. A single illness might also cause consumers to buy less pasteurized milk from Rhode Island. A regional outbreak of a disease may also devastate other livestock and increase the risk for other illnesses, such as foot-and-mouth disease, she said.

Proponents of raw milk claim it boosts the immune system and cures allergies, eczema and asthma. “The health concerns have passed,” said Richard Suls, a raw-milk advocate and co-owner of Rachael Bakes of Providence. Raw milk, he claimed, helps prevent tooth decay and contains more vitamins.

Suls’ business partner, Rachael McCaskill, said raw milk cured many of her childhood ailments, including depression. “My whole life has changed," she said.

The Raw Milk Act would establish a commission to establish rules and regulations for the sale of raw milk. Bottles would be required to have clear labeling, and sales would be prohibited to five days after bottling.   

Massachusetts and Vermont currently allow the sale of raw milk from farms but not through retailers. Maine, New Hampshire and Connecticut permit sales from farms and retailers.

Sen. Stephen Archambault, D-Smithfield, grew up on a farm and said he regretted not drinking raw milk. He described the legislation as a "great bill.”

Sen. Susan Sosnowski, D-South Kingstown, chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Agriculture, said she planned to review raw milk legislation in other states before the committee votes on the bill.