Barb Rauen, left, and her husband, Duane, drink some raw milk from cows at their farm in Edgar in this 2010 photo.
A hearing before a state Senate committee on Monday at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse will continue a prolonged debate in Wisconsin between those who want the ability to sell unpasteurized milk from their farms and those who object to the practice for health and economic reasons.
The committee last week also heard arguments in Madison on a bill from Sen. Glenn Grothman to legalize raw milk sales. Proponents say they should have the freedom to sell what they consider a safe product to a willing customer base, and that milk tastes better and is healthier before it is pasteurized.
Opponents say pasteurization is needed to kill harmful bacteria in raw milk that can lead to outbreaks of food-borne illnesses such as E. coli or salmonella.
A number of scientific studies indicate that raw milk is a danger to public health. Other studies say it is not. The only conclusion to draw is that the studies are inconclusive.
The "conclusion" that draws our attention, however, is the potential for disease outbreaks from raw milk, and a resulting hit to a billion-dollar local industry that Wisconsin simply cannot afford to lose.
Grothman, a West Bend Republican, says the dangers of raw milk are greatly exaggerated by the dairy industry and that, in fact, those who now drink raw milk swear by its health benefits. He adds on-farm sales of raw milk would be strictly regulated and that farmers would need to have the milk tested for certain disease causing microorganisms, including Salmonella.
Health experts say that isn't enough. Manitowoc County Public Health Nurse Amy Wergin said food-borne outbreaks caused by dairy products in the country are rare only because 99 percent of dairy products consumed in the U.S. are pasteurized.
She said a 13-year review by the Centers for Disease Control showed that the states where the sale of raw milk was legal had more than twice the rate of outbreaks as states where it was illegal. The study included 121 dairy-related disease outbreaks, which caused 4,413 illnesses, 239 hospitalizations and three deaths.
We can't afford to take that kind of chance, particularly when we have so much to lose in the state's dairy industries.
Give Grothman credit. He is a long-time champion for the sale of raw milk and his position has not wavered for years. It is something he believes in, but we cannot join in his enthusiasm for a cause that could harm one of the backbone industries of "America's Dairyland."