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EDITORIAL

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Get milk (raw)

Is raw milk safe for human consumption or have health concerns about it been overblown by state and federal regulators? West Virginia lawmakers might get the chance to make that determination this year with two bills before the Legislature that could allow for its purchase by consumers.

The sale of raw, or unpasteurized milk, has been outlawed for many years in West Virginia, even as a number of states have relaxed restrictions on it, with some — Maine, Pennsylvania, California, Washington, Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico, Connecticut, New Hampshire and South Carolina — even allowing it to be bought at retail outlets. Other states, like Texas, New York, Oregon and Illinois, allow for the regulation of herd- or cow-sharing, a process whereby consumers enter into a share agreement with a farmer, enabling them to own a share in a milking animal.

A bill to allow such herd-sharing in West Virginia was introduced this year into the House of Delegates, while a second bill, in the state Senate, would authorize the state Department of Agriculture to establish rules for the sale of raw milk by 2015.

On the face of it, a law that prevents a consumer from making an informed choice about what milk he might drink seems a tad heavy-handed, especially when U.S. Food and Drug Administration estimates have shown that the incidence of contamination of raw milk by E. coli bacteria is far lower than of other other foods, namely eggs, produce and some processed foods, without their consumption being outlawed. Indeed, say advocates for the sale and consumption of raw milk, neither the FDA nor the Centers for Disease Control have been especially reliable in their assessments of the safety and benefits of raw milk, which raw milk advocates say are plentiful and even some studies suggest are present. Indeed, say some supporters of raw milk, all required pasteurization has really does has been to erode the standards under which milk is produced — heating the milk being the one sure-fire means to eliminate pathogens that could thrive in some producers’ substandard herds.

But there’s a benefit to the local economy too, especially to Jefferson County, which has seen its share of dairy farmers dwindle in the face of declining wholesale milk prices. Allowing the sale of raw milk would be a shot in the arm to the local foods movement, giving area growers one more product to offer consumers and helping to further cement the growing farmer-to-consumer connection.

Raw milk has gotten a significant amount of attention in recent years and there’s enough evidence that contradicts big government claims such that West Virginia lawmakers ought to strongly consider allowing area farmers and consumers working together to make their own best decisions about what they can sell and buy.

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