Bovine-inclined North Dakota lawmakers pass bill to allow farmer-to-consumer raw milk sales
Advocates for food freedom say North Dakotans who are aware of the possible health risks of drinking unpasteurized milk should have the ability to buy the product.
BISMARCK — A bill to legalize direct-to-consumer sales of unpasteurized milk has won over the North Dakota Legislature despite opposition from public health advocates and some dairy producers.
The state Senate voted 32-14 on Thursday, April 20, to approve House Bill 1515, which would allow dairy producers to sell raw milk at their farms. The House of Representatives previously passed the legislation, which will now head to the desk of Gov. Doug Burgum. A spokesman for the governor declined to comment on the bill.
The proposal sponsored by Rep. Dawson Holle, R-Mandan, still would prohibit farms from selling the controversial product to grocery stores or wholesalers.
Advocates for food freedom said North Dakotans who are aware of the possible health risks of drinking raw milk should have the ability to buy the product. Sen. Randy Lemm, R-Hillsboro, told colleagues on Thursday the bill would simply permit "a transaction between a willing buyer and a willing seller.”
“Let’s get our raw milk bottled up and ready for the new batch when the cows come home," Lemm said.
But some senators questioned whether the state should enable an unregulated market for a product known to contribute to outbreaks of foodborne diseases.
State health and agriculture officials opposed the bill, saying that unpasteurized milk can carry bacteria, like E. coli and salmonella, that cause serious illnesses.
Holle, who works on a family dairy farm, has said that allowing sales of raw milk could provide a revitalizing boost to a struggling segment of the local agriculture sector. The Republican lawmaker noted that North Dakota dairy farms have been in decline for decades, and producers would fare better with a new source of income.
However, not all dairy farmers were on board with the legalization of raw milk sales. The Milk Producers Association of North Dakota publicly opposed the bill, contending that selling the product could hurt the industry's efforts to educate consumers about the safety of milk.
Sen. Terry Wanzek, R-Jamestown, said two large dairy farms in his district asked him to vote against the bill because "if there is salmonella or any kind of outbreak, it can reflect back on their industry.”
North Dakota lawmakers struck a provision to legalize raw milk from a 2017 bill that expanded the legal sale of home-cooked goods. Holle previously told Forum News Service his bill is a more conservative approach to legalizing the sale of unpasteurized milk since it would only allow purchases on dairy farms.
The sale of raw milk is illegal in North Dakota and 22 other states. Minnesota and South Dakota allow farms to sell the product directly to consumers.
Lawmakers and Burgum already have approved another bill that defines milk as a mammal-derived product in state law.
Holle's House Bill 1255 clarifies that “milk” is a “lacteal secretion” obtained from a hoofed mammal. The legislation doesn’t draw the line at cows — secretions collected from goats, sheep, horses, llamas and even reindeer can also be considered milk.
Intentionally omitted from Holle's milk definition are drinks made from soy, oats, coconuts and almonds that are marketed to consumers as milk varieties. Holle mentioned at a hearing in January that there's an ongoing "war between dairy milk and soy milk."
The bill is more a statement of North Dakota's pro-dairy values than a binding regulation, supporters say. The labeling of plant-based beverages will not be changed by the new law since that kind of enforcement would have to come from the federal government. The legislation's lack of practical effect led some opponents to refer to it as "code clutter."
Despite pressure from national dairy lobbyists, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently released draft rules that would allow makers of plant-based drinks to continue calling their products "milk."