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3rd hearing set for raw milk proposal

By Dirk Lammers

SIOUX FALLS — South Dakota agriculture officials are holding a third public hearing in Pierre today on proposed rules covering the production, testing and labeling of raw milk sold in the state.

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The South Dakota Department of Agriculture says the regulations are necessary to ensure safety. Raw milk producers and customers say the product is already safe and the new rules would impose too many restrictions.

A legislative committee rejected the rules in August, asking department officials for more information on how they would financially affect farmers who produce raw milk for sale.

Under the unchanged proposal, bottle labels would have to carry the warning: “This product has not been pasteurized and may contain harmful bacteria. Pregnant women, infants, children, the elderly and persons with lowered resistance to disease have the highest risk of harm from use of this product.”

Courtney De La Rosa, the department’s lawyer and director of agriculture policy, said raw milk for sale should comply with basic health and sanitary standards, and she estimates that new labeling requirements would raise farmers’ costs by 1 cent per bottle.

“At a penny a label, that’s not a huge increase on the producers,” De La Rosa said.

But Dawn Habeck, owner of Black Hills Milk in Belle Fourche, said her costs would go up by 30 cents to 50 cents per bottle as there’s no room to put such a verbose message on her current labels. Habeck and other raw milk advocates say pasteurization, the process of heating milk to destroy bacteria and extend shelf life, destroys important nutrients and enzymes.

But public health officials say milk carries an increased risk for bacterial contamination that can lead to illness and even death. The sale of raw milk to the public is illegal in some states and under federal law, which applies to products shipped between states.

In South Dakota, raw milk must be labeled as such and sold at the farm or through home delivery by the farmer. The state has only five licensed raw milk producers.

The new regulations also would require a bottling date.

They would set standards for bacteria and other contaminants, regulate the bottling of milk and require regular testing. They would apply to unpasteurized milk from cows, sheep, goats and other hoofed animals.

De La Rosa said that’s critical.

“It goes a long way into helping us if there is a contamination,” she said.

The South Dakota Department of Health says pasteurization is the only way to ensure that fluid milk products do not contain harmful bacteria.

Habeck said state officials seem focused on crafting rules that favor large dairy operations over small producers.

She said the state’s proposed maximum coliform level of 10 per milliliter is too low, as the level of the naturally occurring, beneficial bacteria increases the moment milk is drawn from an animal’s udder. She said the suggested level is next to impossible to hit.

“That’s not a concern for people drinking raw milk,” Habeck said.

Rapid City resident Gena Parkhurst said she buys raw cow and goat milk from the two Black Hills farmers because their products help with arthritic issues she’s had since she was a kid.

Parkhurst said she buys from farmers she knows and trusts, and if she were to buy pasteurized milk at the grocery store, she wouldn’t be able to ask the farmer any questions.

“We’ve been to the farms,” she said. “We see what they do.”

Today’s hearing at the Capitol begins at 10 a.m., and the state Agriculture Department will also accept written comment through Oct. 21.

Agriculture Secretary Lucas Lentsch can then decide to amend the rules, scrap them or send them back to the Interim Rules Committee for its Nov. 12 meeting.

Lentsch withdrew a previous version of the rules after a June 6 hearing in which opponents said the regulations would apply even to milk consumed by a producer’s family or given away for free. The rules were revised to apply only to raw milk that is sold.