"Groundhog Day" in Wisconsin Raw Milk Debate--Whatever Happened to Working Group Agreement?
As I watch the debate over raw milk legislation unfold in Wisconsin, I can’t help but feel as if I’ve seen this movie before....and that it is a version of “Groundhog Day”. That is the 1993 comedy in which a weatherman covering the Groundhog Day festivities in Pennsylvania gets stuck in a time loop, with events repeating themselves over and over.
I’ve seen the movie in California, Nevada, Maine, and now, I fear a second time in Wisconsin. The plot line is always the same. The state legislatures overwhelmingly passe pro-raw-milk legislation, only to see it vetoed by the governor. The first time it happened in Wisconsin was two years ago, when then-Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed legislation that would have allowed the sale of raw milk direct from dairies.
Now Wisconsin, which has a prohibition against raw milk sales (except on an “incidental” basis, whatever that means)and a new governor is going through hearings on legislation similar to what Doyle vetoed two years ago. I’d expect both houses of the legislature to do what they did two years ago, which is to overwhelmingly approve the legislation. We’re hearing many of the same constructive statements from legislators, about how having regulated raw milk is better than having so-called black-market raw milk, and how the legislation would offer a new income opportunity to the state’s huge dairy industry, which continues to see small dairies fold on a regular basis.
The only difference this time around in Wisconsin is that backers won’t have to wait with bated breath to find out what the governor is going to do. Wisconsin’s current governor, Scott Walker, said yesterday that he almost certainly plans to veto whatever legislation emerges from the Wisconsin legislature.
I know, he made his statement yesterday sound positive--that he’s prepared to sign legislation if the dairy industry and health professionals “believe that consumer safety can be guaranteed,” according to one press report.
The same media report stated: “Jim Mulhern of the National Milk Producers Federation says there's no way that would happen. He said it's disheartening that Wisconsin is even considering a bill which he says would ‘damage public health.’
“Shawn Pfaff of the industry's Safe Milk Coalition says his group opposes any new raw milk legislation -- and science does not allow them to compromise.”
Seemingly forgotten in this drop-kick of the new raw milk legislation is that Wisconsin's dairy industry and public health professionals already have come out in favor of raw milk legislation--they approved the framework for allowing raw milk sales, shortly after Gov. Doyle vetoed legislation. Wisconsin's Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP) appointed a 22-member panel, known as the Raw Milk Policy Working Group. It met for about a year, and presto, came to agreement on allowing the sales of regulated raw milk by permitted farms. It's all here, in 200 or so pages of excruciating detail, with information on what other states are doing, the pathogens that can be dangerous in raw milk, and so on and so forth. The actual recommendations for allowing raw milk sales are on the first page of the Executive Summary.
So, Working Group Report or no Working Group Report, Groundhog Day is playing out in Wisconsin. But the news isn’t entirely negative. The hearings and the debate and discussion have the effect of helping spread the word about raw milk and encouraging people who know little or nothing to investigate. Besides, the Vernon Hershberger case has helped establish a precedent for farmers to sell raw milk to private member groups in Wisconsin. It isn’t pretty, but that’s the way it is when governors dependent on cash flow from large food and health-related entities have the final say.