Raw milk dairy farmers in the Black Hills are unhappy about having to make a second trip to Pierre on July 26 to comment on twice-revised rules governing the sale of unpasteurized milk in South Dakota.
Morning and night milking chores make a trip to Pierre a "great sacrifice" for raw milk producers like Lila Streff of Custer and Dawn Habeck of Belle Fourche, two of a handful of raw milk sellers in the state.
To avoid that inconvenience, raw milk advocates are asking state agriculture officials for the option of testifying via video telecommunication during a 9 a.m public hearing on Friday, July 26, at the state capitol.
There are numerous Digital Dakota Network sites that offer statewide video communication capabilities in Rapid City.
"We're more than happy to look into it," said Courtney De La Rosa, SDDA's director of policy, about the possibility of taking public comments that way. "Certainly, we want to hear from folks."
De La Rosa said the department is not opposed to doing so, but since DDN hasn't been used for a SDDA rules hearing before, she couldn't guarantee it would be possible.
The second hearing is being held because Agriculture Secretary Lucas Lentsch made the decision to change the initial proposed rule changes after hearing from hundreds of raw milk supporters and opponents at a June 6 hearing. The major change Lentsch made in the proposed rules is that they will now apply only to raw milk for sale, not milk that is offered or provided for free.
"He felt that the amendments to the proposed rules were so significant that we really need to give the public and any interested party an opportunity to weigh in," De La Rosa said.
People also have until Aug. 5 to submit written comments to the ag department and equal weight is given to both verbal and written testimony, she said.
Raw milk consumers and South Dakota's public health officials likely will never agree about the risks and benefits of drinking unpasteurized milk. So it's not surprising that the two camps don't agree on whether the SDDA's revised rules for its sale are designed to safeguard public health, or to halt raw milk sales in the state.
The advocacy group, Black Hills Food Freedom, will have an informational table at the Rapid City Farmer's Market at Founders Park on Saturday.
The ag department’s amended proposed rules — which include smaller amounts of allowable bacteria and new facility requirements for milking and bottling area — do not increase public safety, said Gena Parkhurst, a group member. Instead, they add a lot of burdensome red tape, she said.
Parkhurst believes the permitting process is unnecessarily stringent and, if adopted, could halt sales of raw milk or limit its availability by driving producers out of business.
De La Rosa rejects that as inaccurate.
"Absolutely, the proposed rules do not prevent the sale of raw milk," she said. "To assert that the rules are unrealistic ... is inaccurate," she said.
Of the 33 states that allow some commerce in raw milk, several have more stringent rules, De La Rosa said.
"They're not only achievable and attainable, they are practical," she said.
By federal law, all milk that crosses state lines must be pasteurized. The amended rules are designed to make drinking raw milk as safe as possible for the public, she said. Milk contaminated by pathogens or bacteria, which pasteurization is designed to kill, can cause illness and even death. A new food safety web page on raw milk risks has been created by the South Dakota Department of Health. It can be viewed at: doh.sd.gov/food/raw-milk.aspx
The health department claims 24 cases of the disease campylobacteriosis were linked to raw milk consumption last year in the state, since the greatest risk factor for those confirmed cases was the consumption of raw milk. But that contamination was never officially traced to a milk source, so supporters say raw milk can't be blamed as the cause, since the disease can be spread many other ways.
"This war on raw milk producers is ludicrous and a waste of taxpayer's time and money as there is no need for additional rules. Since raw milk statutes were updated by the Legislature in 2010, no confirmed cases of raw milk illness have been reported in South Dakota," said Sen. Phil Jensen, a Rapid City legislator and raw milk supporter.
Not true, said De La Rosa. The health department's statistics are solid, and numerous multi-state outbreaks of campylobacteriosis have been directly linked to drinking raw milk, she said.
"Those are the facts. We can disagree about policy all day long, but those are the facts," she said.