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Dawn Hankins

Pencil Shavings

Dawn Hankins is a staff writer for the Times-Gazette.

Raw milk bill stirs raw emotions

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Got milk? Fancy a dollop of homemade yogurt made with fresh milk?

That could all be changing in Tennessee. Say hello to Tennessee Senate Bill 0015. That is, if you’re a private hoof owner — farmers, as they’re called around here.

As introduced earlier this year, the legislation would prohibit a person who owns a partial interest in a hoofed mammal from using the milk of the animal for the person’s personal consumption or other personal use. - Amends TCA Title 53, Chapter 3. (Of course which currently allows such practices.)

As the grandchild of two late dairy farmers, I tried not to “have a cow” when I read this legislation. It’s seriously making its way expediently through the Tennessee General Assembly.

I was actually looking up some education-related bills on the House legislative site when I noticed the large amount of comments that started dropping down from SB 0015. Leave it to a former cow-girl turned journalist to notice.

One person summed up this legislation best, “What’s the purpose of this proposed legislation?” Another said, “Is this an attempt to squeeze out small operations?”

The bill has in just a few weeks made its way to a second consideration, pending new committee appointments. That could prove helpful ... or not.

The bill was originally sponsored by State Sen. Richard Briggs, a physician and retired U.S. Army colonel. Briggs represents Knox County, serving on the Senate Health and Welfare Committee and the Finance Ways and Means Committee. He is an accomplished and respected physician and government leader.

Opponents making comments online asked if this legislation was lobbyist driven. I don’t know. But I do want to be fair and share the senator’s response to the introduction of this bill. I admit, it opened my eyes, especially to some particular problems in his district with raw milk consumption. Times have definitely changed.

“The bill was introduced because Knox County has had two outbreaks of severe illness due to the consumption of raw milk. One in 2013 and another in June 2018. Twenty-seven of my constituents have become seriously ill, including nine children under the age of 5, who developed Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome and spent weeks in the Intensive Care Unit at the Knoxville Children’s Hospital near death. One child now has permanent, severe, irreversible brain damage. Other outbreaks have occurred in Tennessee.

“The intent of the raw milk bill is to minimize the dangers of raw milk to children and how to respond when there is an outbreak. Adults have the right to make choices, even potentially harmful ones, as long as they are informed and understand the consequences. Children don’t. Adults who drink contaminated milk usually recover in a week or so. Young children can develop prolonged, potentially fatal illnesses (Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome) like we’ve seen in Knox County. Some never recover or have permanent brain damage.

“Cow share dairies should be mandated to notify customers when a suspected outbreak with contaminated raw milk occurs and cease selling raw milk until the source of illness is determined. The dairies should not be able to prohibit health department investigators from testing their cows and continue selling potentially contaminated milk. Some raw milk dairies have refused to release cow share customer’s names so they can be notified when a contamination has occurred or permitted access for testing without a court order.

“Only eight states permit the ‘cow share’ we have in Tennessee. In other ‘cow share’ states, the industry is regulated and tested on a regular basis — not in Tennessee. In the southeast, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Louisiana, Virginia, and Kentucky prohibit the sale of raw cow’s milk for human consumption. Tennessee is an outlier in the conservative south.

“The real question is how much do we value the lives of children? How many children’s lives do we put at risk in the name of freedom of choice? The legislature will have to decide.”

Though Briggs is highly decorated as a veteran, he is not being highly touted as a member of the small herd community. You might say he’s standing in the pasture alone on this one.

Some opponents believe this bill would take away a person’s choice to consumption of natural products right off the farm. Out of probably 30 comments thus far I’ve read, there were no proponents for SB 0015.

A nurse practitioner commented, “I am a nurse practitioner who has been drinking local raw milk for many years. I have never gotten ill, in fact I believe it to be far better for me than the ultra processed product in the markets. I trust the wonderful family farm that provides this delicious, nutritious milk often receiving it the morning after milking. Please do not take this choice, an educated, informed decision away from me and others. Thank you!”

One person said, “Is this an attempt to squeeze out small operations? Go fix the opioid problem.”

I have to agree here. With all the important pieces of legislation that need to be passed, is this a diversion tactic right off the January agenda?

One soldier asked the senator if he had forgotten about what it was like to eat powdered eggs from a military-issued meal-ready-to-eat (MRE). That comrade in arms called Briggs down on some of his “campaign promises” as well.

Word across the farm gate is to “kill that bill on Capitol Hill.”

That brings back another part of my childhood—the Saturday morning “Schoolhouse Rock” cartoons. Life was good then, a slab of homemade butter on hot cornbread while watching Saturday morning cartoons. Sweet!

I’m just a bill on Capitol Hill . . .

Rest in peace, “Schoolhouse Rock” musician Matt O’Donnell. The world is the lesser without your music. Had you only had the chance to make a song about SB 0015 in 2019. I can hear it now ... “a little clump of cheese rolling down the steps of Capitol Hill.” Out of all the suits, it’s a friendly farmer who picks him up and dusts him off.

As the song ends, SB 0015 is just a bill.

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  • So you just zip right past the doctor’s first hand experience with raw milk making children seriously ill and damaging them for life and agree with the puerile “I never got sick so nobody else will either” drivel? Shame on you. You reduced a serious problem to nothing and have endangered others because you don’t understand the problem and threat. Raw milk is not safe.

    -- Posted by MaeLarsen on Sun, Jan 20, 2019, at 7:28 PM
  • Dawn,

    As a self professed non-dairy farmer (two generations removed) and a journalist, you didn't do much research. Consider every time a raw milk sickness outbreak occurs, it hurts the production and sale of properly pasteurized milk and dairy products. Dairy farms who sell to milk and dairy product processors know the product will be pasteurized for a real good reason. The number of farms selling raw milk doesn't represent the real dairy production industry. At best is it one tenth of one percent who do.

    Our population is ignorant, they have forgotten why we use pasteurization with dairy products. It was because people back in the early 1900s, (when pasteurization was first used and heralded) would get sick from raw milk, lots of them, consistently.

    Consuming raw milk is dangerous, no matter how many people say "as a kid growing up on a dairy farm we used to always drink raw milk and we never got sick". This kind of statement is ignorant and you know it. How often have you felt sick, and really didn't know what it was or where it came from?

    Those people who became sick in TN, did they have any recourse for damages or medical expenses? Do the raw milk cow share program laws require any kind of liability insurance, Answer, no, but they should. As you know medical bills can skyrocket and any dairy farmer who doesn't have food liability insurance will be out of business with just one lawsuit by a sick raw milk customer. I wonder if the coop who buys the rest of their milk or the farmer's insurance company knew they were selling raw milk care, I suspect they would but I bet they don't even know.

    Raw milk is not good for you, can make you sick and in extreme cases cause death, the CDC, world health organization, pediatrician groups, AMA, universities and countless organizations all agree. Just google raw milk sickness and see the headlines that come out all the time.

    Go to a grocery store, pick up any brand gallon of milk. If this company accidentally didn't pasteurize their milk they would have all their product recalled, the plant shut down and most likely be severely hurt, if not go out of business. But there is a double standard for anyone supporting raw milk purchases direct from a farm. Why is that? Just because you might feel sorry for the dairy farmer is no way to initiate public food safety policy.

    I suggest you do more research, really look into the agenda of raw milk supporters, consider the much bigger picture and do a follow up story.

    -- Posted by Jackieschmidts on Mon, Jan 21, 2019, at 9:10 AM
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