It was a hectic week, as expected, as policy committees kicked into overdrive in order to get bills out by Friday, which was crossover.
House Agriculture and Forestry was no exception, and we were able to vote out H.218, which expands the sale of raw, unpasteurized milk at farm stands and CSAs (Community-Supported Agriculture) by Tier 2 producers. Currently, raw milk may be sold by the producers at their farms and at farmers’ markets.
Over the years, the sale and consumption of raw milk has been contentious but broadly supported. Many Vermonters, especially those who grew up on dairy farms, regularly consumed raw milk and it was not unusual for neighbors to stop by and fill jugs for their own use. There was little or no regulation but 20+ years ago, there was an attempt to prohibit that practice and disallow completely the sale of raw milk. It was part of a “housekeeping” bill that I objected to, mostly because I knew so many people who were using it. At the time, I and others were able to prevail and prevent that from happening.
When we first codified the parameters for sale, we created two tiers of production as a risk management tool. Those who sell less than 87.5 gallons of unpasteurized milk per week have slightly less rigorous requirements to meet and are considered Tier 1 producers. Tier 2 producers sell between 87.5 and 350 gallons per week and are held to more stringent standards and requirements because of the additional opportunity for risk.
At the time, there was a long debate on the Floor of the House but ultimately the bill was strongly supported by the body. Why is that? There are folks who think that raw milk is inherently dangerous and others who believe it is medicinal. Both groups may be correct. As examples, unpasteurized milk can harbor pathogens that can make people very sick and there is some evidence that it can help people who suffer from asthma. Our approach was that people are going to consume raw milk, so let’s make it as safe as possible.
Both tiers are held to reasonable sanitation standards and all animals need to be tested for brucellosis and tuberculosis, as well as being vaccinated for rabies. Test results and vaccination verification must be posted so that customers can see them. Farmers must comply with certain animal care and milking parlor standards; record keeping and reporting rules; sample taking and storage requirements; maintenance of a current list of all customers and their contact information; and a list of transactions for at least one year that shall include customer names, dates of purchase, and the amount purchased. Other standards regarding temperature, storage, and shelf life need to be adhered to.
All milk jugs must be labeled with the name, address, zip code, and telephone number of the producer; the date the milk was obtained from the animal; and the common name of animal (cow, goat, sheep, etc.) producing the milk or an image of that animal. Producers are also required to include on the label and post an 8.5-inch by 11-inch sign with the following words: “Consuming raw unpasteurized milk may cause illness, particularly in children, seniors, persons with weakened immune systems, and pregnant women.” We originally required that potential customers visit the farm, so they knew where their product was coming from. This was later changed so that the farmer only has to offer a farm tour, but it was not required. While some farmers were offended by some of these requirements, they were included to provide a level of protection for them. We also wanted a clear path for traceability if an unfortunate health issue arose.
Tier 2 producers, those selling more than 87.5 gallons per week, have additional requirements they need to meet. Their farms are inspected on a yearly basis by the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (AAFM) to verify that they are complying with sanitary standards. There are specific bottling requirements regarding the cleaning of containers and labeling if the customer is cleaning their own containers. The farmer must have their milk tested twice a month by a USDA-accredited laboratory and the test results must be sent by the lab to the AAFM. The test results must be posted in a prominent place so that customers can easily see them and be provided to the customer, if they so desire. Test results need to be kept on file for one year. The statute also lays out a process in the case that the test results exceed the prescribed limits.
Unlike Tier 1, Tier 2 producers need to register with the AAFM and file a yearly report regarding the total gallons of unpasteurized milk sold in the previous twelve months. It should be noted that Tier 2 producers have been able to sell and deliver off-farm, primarily at farmers’ markets, so we have a track record of safety for off-farm sales.
I have included a lot of the details here to indicate that we attempted to create a system that provided safeguards for the consumer, as well as the producer. What is clear is that raw milk needs to be carefully handled and consumers need to know what the risks are if they choose to use it. Interestingly, this is not an issue that falls along political lines but seems to be an intersection of different approaches.
H.218 was, to a great extent, the result of Vermonters looking to source more of their food locally, in part because of recent trends, but also as a result of the pandemic. CSAs and farm stands have seen a dramatic increase in business for the last year as supermarkets struggled to keep food on their shelves. While things are more on an even keel, Vermonters have grown more familiar with purchasing local food and have come to realize its benefits in terms of freshness and the positive impact it has on our local economy.
Our committee thought that if we can safely make farm fresh, unpasteurized milk a little more accessible through sales at farm stands or as part of a CSA share, we can boost our farmers’ incomes, customers wouldn’t have to drive to sometimes remote farms to pick it up, and we could reduce our carbon footprint at the same time.
We also want to be clear that if there is a problem with raw milk, regardless of where it is sold, it will ultimately be the farmer who is responsible and potentially liable. It is highly advisable that farmers and farm stand/CSA owners consult their insurance providers to make sure they are covered appropriately.