As a courtesy, state dairy officials asked raw milk advocates to provide input into proposed revisions of rules governing the production of the controversial milk product in South Dakota.
They got what they asked for.
At a recent 5-hour meeting between the producers and consumers of unpasteurized milk and the South Dakota Department of Agriculture, raw milk advocates got their first look at proposed revisions to the administrative rules for permitted raw milk dairies.
The meeting in Rapid City last week was led by Dairy Program Administrator Darwin Kurtenbach and Agriculture Policy Director Courtney De La Rosa.
More than a dozen people, including cow and goat dairy farmers who sell raw milk in western South Dakota, weighed in on the fine points of the legal language surrounding raw milk sales. De La Rosa later called the meeting "insightful and constructive."
"The concerns we heard and perspective we gained through this meeting will be beneficial moving forward. The Department’s objective was to get some of the producers and consumers involved in the actual formulation of the rules. We came in with an initial proposal and we will take all comments and concerns into consideration as we move forward," De La Rosa said by email.
Raw milk supporters Amy Milner, Gena Parkhurst and Frank DiCesare, all of Rapid City, attended the meeting as interested consumers. They say the nutritional and health benefits of raw milk outweigh any risk of illness for them. "Raw milk is already safe. These rules are not, cannot and will not make raw milk any safer," said Milner, who remains skeptical of the permitting process.
Public health officials say unpasteurized milk can carry harmful bacteria, viruses and parasites, and has an increased risk of certain diseases. Tasked with assuring public safety in the food supply, Kurtenbach and De La Rosa said the department has a statutory duty to inspect raw milk. "If there is an outbreak or if someone gets sick, that's the first phone that rings," De La Rosa said.
Selling raw milk is illegal in many states, but the South Dakota Legislature legalized direct farm-to-consumer sales of raw milk in 2010 in response to consumer demand. Raw milk supporters dispute statistics suggesting raw milk causes more food-borne illness than the pasteurized variety.
"Only time will tell," Milner said of the proposed changes, which will, among other things, give raw milk sales their own section in codified law and revise current statutory language that is either outdated or doesn't apply to raw milk.
Parkhurst called the meeting productive and said it helped repair some damage done last year when inspectors shut down Habeck's dairy near Belle Fourche for five days in October, using state regulations that supporters said may not even apply to raw milk. The pathogen campylobacter was found in a sample of milk taken from Habecks, although no reports of illness were ever traced to the dairy. The Habecks sell about 85 gallons of raw milk per day and estimate that perhaps 2,000 people in the area drink their milk weekly.
Dawn and John Habeck attended the meeting, as did Custer goat milk producer Lila Streff. "Do we get to keep our freedom to drink and eat what we want?" asked Dawn Habeck of the proposed revisions.
The Habecks and Streff want to protect their option of selling raw milk to consumers who want it, including the right to sell herd shares. Herd shares is a contract between a dairy farmer and customers that allows them to share in the milk products extracted from the animal.
Striking a conciliatory tone throughout the lengthy meeting, De La Rosa said the agriculture department hopes to have a final draft of the revisions submitted to the Legislative Research Council soon and have them available for public hearings this summer. The new rules must be approved by the state legislature in 2014 before becoming law.