NOFA-NJ conference plays host to raw milk debate

AFP Correspondent

LINCROFT (March 1, 2016) — Attendees at the NOFA-NJ conference at Brookdale Community College were treated to a pro and con panel on raw milk.
On the side for raw milk sales were Dr. Joe Heckman from Rutgers University’s School of Environmental and Biological Sciences and Massachusetts-based author and activist David Gumpert, who has written several books about raw milk.
On the side against raw milk sales were Jennifer Todd, a PhD candidate in food science at Rutgers and Dr. Don Schaffner, a member of the food science faculty at SEBS and an Extension specialist.
The plan was to make the panel a discussion, not a debate, and attendees in the audience were encouraged to ask questions and make comments.
Heckman, long an advocate for choice in the matter in New Jersey, stressed that his opinions on raw milk are his own, based on his own research and experience and have no affiliation with SEBS.
“Since 2006, almost every year, NOFA has had something on the program about raw milk,” Heckman said, noting the status of raw milk sales and distribution hasn’t changed in New Jersey since 1964, when sale or distribution of raw milk was banned.
“Slowly behind the organic farming movement is the raw milk movement,” Heckman said. “It’s becoming more mainstream now. It used to be 27 states that allowed distribution of raw milk and now there are 41 states that allow it and New Jersey is one of nine that still prohibit distribution,” he said.
However, New Jerseyans who have their own cows are within the law to drink their own raw milk.
“Back in 1953, you had G.I. Rodale, one of the pioneers of the organic farming movement, who said ‘It’s not organic to produce milk organically and then pasteurize it.’ ”
Much progress has been made in sterilization practices and the understanding of microbiology since it was banned, he said, so outbreaks of serious illness from drinking raw milk are far less frequent and far less frequent than illnesses from drinking pasteurized milk.
“I’ve never stopped telling the public that if you’re going to criticize raw milk on the basis of safety, then take a look at pasteurized milk and you’ll see it’s not a perfect record,” Heckman said. Over 158,000 people were sickened by an illness from pasteurized milk, Heckman argued.
“Raw milk is a great business model for a lot of farmers, and as a soil fertility scientist I would argue we can improve the sustainability of soil fertility by bringing back small dairy farms to the state of New Jersey.” He concluded his opening remarks by taking a sip of raw milk out of a glass beside him, declaring, “Finally, raw milk just tastes really good!”
On the side against selling raw milk, Schaffner said he is concerned about the possible consequences Garden State dairy farmers would face if there were an outbreak of illness from persons who drank it.
“If this was something that would help New Jersey farmers then I am all for it. But what I would hate to see happen is for New Jersey farmers to be involved in selling raw milk and then for there to be an outbreak, Schaffner said. “When a small cannery causes botulism, Campbell’s soup loses sales, even though they didn’t do anything wrong. If we were to legalize raw milk in New Jersey, one bad actor could cause the whole industry to lose money, even though 99.9 percent of that industry could be doing a great job.”
A bill before the New Jersey State Assembly now, A-696, contains standards for raw milk, Schaffner added, “but do we know if those standards are protective of public health? What is the source of the standards in A-696?”
Author David Gumpfert offered a national perspective on the issue. “Forty-one states allow raw milk distribution in some way or another and you have states all around New Jersey sucking money out of the state, because people from New Jersey who want raw milk are driving to Pennsylvania, New York state, Connecticut and even Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine or Vermont, where it’s legal.”
“Food Safety News just had an article that said Washington state is experiencing explosive growth in raw milk  sales,” Gumpert said, “when people buy raw milk in their own communities, that’s money that stays in the community. It’s not just the sale of raw milk we’re talking about. When you go to Pennsylvania to buy raw milk, you also buy eggs and veggies, that’s money that goes into their community. There’s a multiplier effect and people aren’t just buying milk.”
Gumpert countered Schaffner’s assertion that just one outbreak of illness from raw milk could be a big problem for the state’s dwindling numbers of dairy farmers by relating there hasn’t been a single illness from a regulated dairy in Massachusetts since 1993. In Maine, there hasn’t been an illness since 1990, he said.
“One state that has had problems is Pennsylvania, from two different outbreaks of campylobacter,” he said.
The dairy involved reviewed its procedures and quickly straightened up its protocols and double-checking on cleanliness issues.
“The dairy was very upfront about what the source of the problem was and they kept all their customers. Since 2012, when this happened, they may have doubled their sales,” Gumpert said.
Todd, the food scientist doctoral candidate, and Schaffner said they would like to see the discussion first center around how to make raw milk a safer product, and how methods used in raising the cattle can make raw milk a safer product.”
“Anybody that tells me that pasteurized milk is safe doesn’t understand the math,” Schaffner said. “And anyone that tells me raw milk is safe also doesn’t understand the math. Both of these foods have risk. On an absolute basis, pasteurized milk is safer; does that mean people shouldn’t be allowed to consume raw milk, no, I don’t think that. What I think we need to do and what all four of us have said is that we need more research on what needs to be done to make raw milk safer than it is now,” Schaffner said, “and we want it as safe as we can possibly do it and still allow the farmer to make a profit.”