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Published May 20, 2010, 09:54 AM

Wisconsin governor vetoes bill allowing raw milk sales

MADISON, Wis. — Raw milk sales won’t be allowed in “America’s Dairyland.”

By: Scott Bauer, Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. — Raw milk sales won’t be allowed in “America’s Dairyland.”

Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed a bill Wednesday that would have allowed limited sales of raw milk in Wisconsin, saying he was protecting citizens’ health and safety. He also expressed concerns about how a possible outbreak of disease from drinking the unpasteurized milk could affect the state’s $26 billion dairy industry.

“I recognize that there are strong feelings on both sides of this matter, but on balance, I must side with the interests of public health and the safety of the dairy industry,” he said in his veto letter to lawmakers.

Supporters argued that pasteurization, which kills harmful bacteria and extends shelf life, depletes the milk of beneficial nutrients and enzymes. Opponents — including the state’s dairy industry — said the threat of food-borne illnesses such as E. coli or salmonella should take precedent.

Doyle said in April he was leaning toward signing the bill, but he was heavily lobbied in recent weeks by Wisconsin’s dairy and cheese industries, the Wisconsin Medical Society, farm and health groups and a host of other business. The National Milk Producers Federation and the International Dairy Foods Association joined the chorus last week.

State Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, had pledged to drink raw milk for a year to prove its benefits if the bill was signed. He said Wednesday that the veto “infuriates me beyond belief. ... It’s just asinine.” He said it would hurt residents who believe that raw milk improves their health.

Seattle attorney Bill Marler, who has represented children and families all over the country sickened by E. coli and other food contaminants, said Doyle did the right thing.

“Because Wisconsin’s well-known as the ‘Dairy State,’ it sends the message that other states need to take a deep breath and understand that raw milk does not come without risks,” Marler said.

The state allows incidental sales of raw milk, but dairy farmers who supported the bill argued that the state was cracking down on anyone who sold it to regular customers or more than a few occasional gallons.

The bill would have allowed farmers to sell raw milk directly to consumers on their farms through 2011, as a study of how to permanently deal with the issue was completed. The study, which includes supporters and opponents of raw milk, is under way.

Supporters of the bill included the Wisconsin Coalition for Consumer Choice, which works to limit government intrusion into consumer rights, the Wisconsin Farmers Union, which advocates for family farms, and the Wisconsin Health Freedom Coalition, which supports access to natural healing methods.

Hundreds of people showed up in support at a public hearing earlier this year.

“The people spoke and unfortunately they weren’t listened to,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Chris Danou, D-Trempealeau. “I recognize that’s the system we’re in. Politics isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon.”

Both he and the Senate sponsor, Sen. Pat Kreitlow, D-Chippewa Falls, vowed to bring the bill back next year if lawmakers didn’t override the veto. Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker, D-Weston, isn’t interested in seeking an override, said his spokeswoman Carrie Lynch. The bill passed the Assembly six votes shy of what would be needed.

The veto drew praise from large agriculture groups that opposed raw milk sales, including the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association and the Farm Bureau.

“In order to pacify a vocal minority, this bill showed reckless disregard both for our state’s dairy industry, and for the health of citizens, especially children and the elderly,” Wisconsin Farm Bureau President Bill Bruins said in a statement praising the veto.

The governor said in April that the bill struck a good balance between opponents and supporters but he changed his mind after studying it more closely. In his veto message, Doyle said significant questions remained and improvements needed to be made, including testing requirements.

Doyle is not seeking re-election this fall, so lawmakers will face a different governor if they decide to take on the issue again next year.

Legalizing raw milk sales has been a growing national issue, with the debate typically breaking down over health risks.

Nineteen states allow direct sales of raw milk from dairy farmers to individuals, while nine additional states go a step further by permitting retail sales. The federal government doesn’t allow sales of raw milk because of concerns about food-borne illness, but states can allow them as long as the milk doesn’t cross state lines.

There were 1,614 reported illnesses, 187 hospitalizations and two deaths from consumption of raw milk between 1998 and 2008, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

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