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Senate panel examines bill imposing ban on Kansas raw milk sales

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By Tim Carpenter

Posted Feb 12, 2020 in the Topeka Capital-Journal

Iola dairy farmer Steve Strickler grew up drinking raw milk from the family’s cows, but joined other Kansas Dairy Association members Wednesday urging adoption of a state law banning the sale of unpasteurized milk for human consumption.

He told the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee a new legal standard in Kansas was necessary to protect public safety and to guide inadequately informed consumers buying raw milk produced primarily at small dairy farms.

“Most are operating on false information they got on an internet fringe site, hearsay or from a doctor who wasn’t even required to take a nutrition class while in medical school,” Strickler said. “Instead of relying on peer-reviewed science they will put themselves and their family in jeopardy because someone told them pasteurization cooks all the ‘good stuff’ out of milk.”

Blake Williams, who operated a raw-milk dairy for eight years in Kansas, told senators a ban on sale of raw milk in Senate Bill 300 raised health, economic and philosophical questions. He opposed the legislation because state politicians shouldn’t dictate what type of milk or milk products was consumed by their constituents.

“If the state of Kansas makes it illegal to sell raw milk,” he said, “then it follows that a farmer who sells raw milk could be arrested for doing so. Is such a scenario not troubling? Are we not kidding ourselves to consider ourselves free when our government possesses the authority to meddle in the most ordinary affairs of citizens?”

Sen. Dan Kerschen, a Garden Plain Republican and chairman of the Senate committee, said there was weak support for a prohibition on sale of raw milk. There is enthusiasm for a separate bill requiring more specific in labeling of unpasteurized milk, he said. Another possibility, he said, would be to create a requirement the state expand inspections to currently unlicensed or unregistered dairies.

“I think that (a ban) is going to be a tough sell. We want to promote milk,” said Kerschen, who operated a dairy for 45 years. “We’re not trying to make a punitive deal out of it.”

The bill was introduced in wake of November order signed by a Shawnee County District Court judge prohibiting the Kansas Department of Agriculture from enforcing laws and regulations limiting advertising for raw milk to a sign located on the dairy’s premises.

The 50-year-old law was challenged on 1st Amendment grounds by goat farmers Mark and Coraleen Bunner, operators of Shepherd’s Gate Dairy near Pfeifer in central Kansas. They successfully argued the statute violated the Bill of Rights of the Kansas Constitution. The court left in place a provision in state law restricting distribution of raw, unpasteurized milk to sales at the producer’s farm directly to the final consumer.

Samuel MacRoberts, litigation director for the Kansas Justice Institute who assisted the Bunners, said there was no factual or legal justification for imposition of a complete ban.

“For years, raw milk farmers have safely produced and sold milk directly to consumers from the farm,” he said. “Now that advertising is finally legal, the public will be able to more closely scrutinize farms, farmers and their production methods. Senate Bill 300 is unreasonable, arbitrary and does not serve a legitimate governmental purpose.”

He said the bill was a response to the Bunners’ legal victory and designed to limit legitimate competition among dairies. He said enactment of the bill would invite “immediate, prolonged and well-publicized litigation.”

Fourth-generation dairy farmer Aaron Pauly, who milks 160 cows in Sedgwick County, said some of the “so-called dairy farmers” selling raw milk weren’t required to have milking equipment or facilities inspected or licensed. He feared an illness outbreak tied to unpasteurized milk that would be blamed on all dairies, including the 250 licensed dairies in Kansas, including his own, that follow protocols, including pasteurization.

“Many of the comments I have read say the bill is corporate ag trying to prevent the little farmer from making a living. That is not true,” Pauly said.

Bill opponent Arlene Borntrager, of Hutchinson, said she was co-owner of a dairy where raw milk had been sold to customers for 15 years. She said the Kansas Dairy Association’s bill was a threat to her family’s well-being.

“It’s the only milk my children and I have ever had. Our customers are our friends. We would not sell our friends something that can hurt them. To the KDA, I say, we are not your competitors. To the senators, I ask you to please say no to this bill. It is my life.”

Kenneth Titus, chief general counsel for the Kansas Department of Agriculture, said the agency had serious concern about human consumption of raw milk. The risk of drinking raw milk, especially for people with weakened immune systems, included exposure to Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria and other diseases. However, he said a complete ban on sale of raw milk wouldn’t be the most effective way to protect the public.

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