Politics & Government

Pasteurization without representation? Kentucky lawmaker wants to boost raw milk

Enough of this "pasteurization without representation," protested Rep. Thomas Massie.

The Kentucky Republican wants to make it easier for small-scale farmers to sell raw milk, and his outrage spilled onto the House floor.

Massie, who has also tried to make it easier for small-scale farmers to sell beef, pork and lamb, got a chance Friday to change federal law he considers too oppressive when it comes to what Americans eat and drink.

His bid failed, 79 to 331.

Massie conceded he knew "big milk" was opposed. The "lactose lobby," he charged, is "very intolerant of freedom."

The dairy industry hailed the plan's defeat, saying it would have led to an increased risk in foodborne illnesses. The federal government considers raw milk a threat to public health, and only gives approval to the processed variety.

The National Milk Producers Federation and the International Dairy Foods Association in a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi had bashed Massie's provision as "an unnecessary risk to consumer safety and public health.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has mandated pasteurization of all milk products since 1987 and prevents the sale or transport of unpasteurized milk between states.

Due to its increasing popularity, however, more than two dozen states now allow the sale of raw, or unpasteurized, milk. Massie's plan would have allowed the trade of unpasteurized milk or milk products between states where distribution is already legal.

He suggested that would prevent situations such as the armed 2010 raid of a Pennsylvania farm by FDA agents looking for raw milk products.

"What crime could they possibly be going after?" Massie asked. "Is it a human trafficking ring? Is it a drug bust? No, they're after an Amish farmer for selling milk straight from the cow."

Fellow lawmakers were not convinced there are any benefits to bypassing pasteurization, a heat-treatment process that kills microbes.

Indeed, Rep. Roger Marshall, R-Kansas, who cited warnings from the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention against drinking raw milk, likened it to "drinking water out of a cow hoof print in the dirt."

Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Florida, a veterinarian, said raw milk can carry a host of nasty germs, including Campylobacter, E. coli and listeria and cause a variety of life-threatening maladies, including tuberculosis, cow pox, diphtheria and typhoid fever.

"I'm not against raw milk, but if it's your cow, you ought to drink it at your house," Yoho said.

Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Oregon, crossed the aisle to side with his fellow veterinarian: "Milk, which is high in protein, starch and fat is an ideal medium for bacterial growth," he argued.

Massie did get backing from a dairy state lawmaker, Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wisconsin, who said there were a number of raw milk enthusiasts in his district.

"Chiropractors, nurses, veterinarians are the ones who feel strongly about drinking raw milk," Grothman said.

He was surprised to hear a complaint from a visiting European diplomat who told him that the worst thing about the United States was the scarcity of raw milk and cheese.

"I thought it was a shame that America, the land of the free — we don't have those freedoms," Grothman said.

Though his amendment was soundly defeated, Massie savored a drop of victory, saying he believed it was the first time a debate on raw milk had caused a splash on the House floor.

"Win or lose, I'm happy to have Congress weigh in on this," Massie said.

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark