Raw milk now legal in Arkansas, but buyers assume risk
(Editor's note: Correction: The effective date of this new law will be Aug. 16, which is 90 days, this year by Attorney General decree, after the General Assembly adjourned, not after the governor signed the bill. We apologize for any confusion this error may have caused.)
CARROLL COUNTY -- As of Monday, July 15, it has become legal to purchase raw milk in Arkansas, but you won't find it at the farmers' market or grocery store. You can only get it directly from a farm.
Gov. Mike Beebe signed HB 1536, cosponsored by both Sen. Bryan King and Rep. Bob Ballinger, into law as Act 1209 in April.
The basics of the new law provide that Arkansas farms can sell up to 500 gallons of whole raw cow's milk and up to 500 gallons of raw goat's milk per month, directly to consumers for personal use and not for resale. It will still be illegal to sell it at farmers markets or retail outlets. Customers must go directly to the farm to purchase these raw milk products.
Farmers will be required to post a sign at the farm and label unpasteurized products with a standardized label noting that the milk is unpasteurized, and purchasers assume all risk.
The farm and the cows will not be inspected by the state, but farmers must allow customers to inspect their cows and barns upon request.
This is a victory for raw milk advocates, who have long held that the health benefits outweigh the risks as long as raw milk is properly produced and handled. Many have also felt that it is unconstitutional for the government to be telling people what they may and may not consume.
Raw milk has been the subject of heated controversy for many years. In states where raw milk is legal, reports have shown an increase in dairy farms making it available.
On the national front, the American Farm Bureau Federation is opposed to raw milk sales, and the National Farmers Union is for it.
In recent years the Food and Drug Administration has raided farms selling raw milk, even in states where it is legal, and hauled small farmers into court to wage costly battles that have destroyed the livelihood of their family farms.
Many people who grew up on farms, drinking raw milk, have said they have never gotten sick from it and have had many health benefits, such as beneficial enzymes and bacteria and improvement of allergies.
But even organic raw milk dairies have had recalls of contaminated batches. Between 2006 and 2012, Organic Pastures, the largest raw milk producer in California, had four recalls of e coli-contaminated milk.
In one case, the company settled out of court with a family whose son was hospitalized for two months with kidney failure, although the company contested that the e coli did not come from their farm.
The four biggest pathogen worries about raw milk are e coli, Campylobacter, Salmonella and Listeria, all of which can lead to serious health problems and even death.
However, even pasteurized milk can be contaminated with these pathogens. In 2007 in Massachusetts, no one had died from raw milk, but three people died from Listeria in pasteurized milk.
There are 20 states that prohibit raw milk sales and 30 that allow it. Some of the states that allow it -- California, Arizona, Maine, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Utah and Washington, have set standards for raw milk safety.
Arkansas has not.
(Ed. note: The following portion of our story about raw milk in the Carroll County News July 16, 2013, print edition was inadvertently left out. Our apologies.)
The fact that the state has not set standards for raw milk and will not inspect farms puts the burden of caution on the consumer.
For instance, raw milk is not necessarily organic milk.
A local woman who spoke on condition of anonymity, and who is an advocate for organic foods and natural health, said she had been buying raw cow's milk from an area farm for quite a long time, but at one point she became extremely ill. Unable to pinpoint the cause anywhere else, she spoke to the farm owner, who told her the cows had recently been treated with fly powder insecticide while being milked in the barn. The owner also told her no one else who obtained milk from the farm had reported being ill. The woman stopped buying the milk and recovered.
Some time later the farm owner called her and said the cows were no longer being treated with pesticides while being milked, and the woman might consider buying milk again. She did, and again she became ill.
"So I stopped buying it altogether," she said.
She has since found a source of raw goats' milk to buy, which has given her no problems, she said.
We contacted the farm owner, who is 80 years old, and said the farm had provided raw milk for years to family, neighbors and friends, and no one had ever complained of getting sick.
"I have been drinking it all my life and have never had any problems, nor has anyone else," the owner said. "Some people may be more sensitive to certain things, I don't know."
Herbicides and pesticides used on the pasture or used on the small amount of grain fed to cows or goats while in the milking barn could affect the milk. In addition, grain mixtures could contain genetically modified plants, such as corn, which have raised concerns in recent years.
Occasionally, even goat's milk may be contaminated when goats eat naturally occurring poisonous plants.
Those interested in purchasing raw milk and who are hopeful of finding a source that is, if not organic, at least safely produced and handled, would do well to ask several questions of the farmer.
These include what types, if any, of herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers are used on the pastures where the animals graze and when; whether purchased hay for use in winter might also contain these substances; the source, composition and potential chemical residues or genetic modification of grain feed; whether cows are being given bovine growth hormone; whether cows or goats are treated directly for pests and with what and when; how the milking is done and what measures are used to keep it sanitary; and under what conditions the milk is available and measures used to prevent spoilage.
Local farmers who are considering selling raw milk direct to consumers might want to look into organic or all-natural methods of feeding and pest control.
Two websites with information to help both farmers and consumers make up their minds about raw milk practices and the controversy surrounding them are www.realmilk.com, which is pro-raw milk, and www.realrawmilkfacts.com, which is anti-raw milk.