By Judith McGeary, Esq.
The path to changing laws is frequently long and difficult. This year’s battle over a raw milk bill in Texas was particularly difficult and took some unexpected twists that have effectively killed the bill this session. Since at least some of these new twists are likely to become common in raw milk fights across the country, it is worth learning from the hard knocks Texans have suffered.
Big Dairy opposition to raw milk is not new. The industry giants have killed bills in California, Wisconsin and elsewhere. In Texas, though, there was a new twist because the industry initially supported the raw milk reforms. In November 2009, a group of raw milk farmers and consumers presented a proposal to the Advisory Council for the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) to allow licensed farmers to sell raw milk at farmers markets and through delivery. (Current law allows licensed farmers to sell only on-farm.) The Executive Director for the Texas Association of Dairymen (TAD ) testified in favor of the proposal.
Over the course of the next year, TAD repeated its support for expanding legal sales of raw milk. But in December of 2010, TAD reversed its position. We have no proof as to what triggered the flip flop, but the association’s comments give strong clues. Back in 2009, TAD ’s comments focused on the needs of family farmers and the potential for raw milk to help them. The Executive Director spoke about the economic plight of the farmers selling milk into the conventional markets and acknowledged that direct-to-consumer sales of raw milk could save family farmers. After the flip flop, the TAD ’s comments switched to the typical fear mongering promoted by Dairy Farmers of America, which not coincidentally controls a majority of TAD ’s Board. In essence, the organization appears to have gone from listening to its farmers to listening to the corporate headquarters.
The next twist was the claim by DSHS that the bill would cost the state money. With Texas facing a record budget shortfall, this was enough to stall the bill. The agency began with a simple fact: the costs of all of the state’s inspections and tests are greater than the amount of fees generated. But from there, the agency spun a fantasy where dozens of raw milk dairies would be licensed, more outbreaks would occur, the agency would need more employees, and so forth. Not only did these assumptions lack any basis in fact, but the underlying viewpoint was startling: the agency was effectively claiming that it was in the state’s fiscal interest to have a few massive dairies rather than healthy small family farms. Ultimately, when faced with the lack of facts to support the claims, the agency concluded that there would be no “significant” fiscal impact to the state and removed that obstacle to the bill.
But just as the bill headed to the long-awaited hearing, yet another twist arose. After ten years with absolutely no illnesses attributed to raw milk in Texas, on the day of the hearing, there was a press release claiming that four illnesses, between December and March, were attributed to a raw milk dairy in the Texas area.
David Gumpert has an excellent blog posting with some of the unanswered questions about these allegations: http://www.thecompletepatient.com/journal/2011/4/21/health-officials-say-they-have-the-goods-on-texas-raw-dairy.html
Despite the last-minute ambush, the proponents of the raw milk bill turned out in strength at the April 20th hearing on the bill. Over one hundred thirty people registered in support of the bill, and a dozen health practitioners, farmers, mothers and students spoke eloquently about the wide range of benefits of raw milk, from health to economic. Unfortunately, while we clearly “won” the hearing on both turnout and substance, the Committee delayed voting on the bill and there is not enough time left to pass it this year in Texas.
One of the key reasons that the bill was delayed yet again, despite the strong facts on our side, was the opposition of the Texas Medical Association. Medical associations have been predictably opposed to raw milk. Generally, that opposition has taken the form of general policies and statements opposing raw milk consumption, which have been quoted by the industry opponents. In Texas, however, the medical associations took a much more active role. The Texas Medical Association and the Texas Pediatrics Society developed so-called fact sheets that they distributed to the legislators. They also distributed “Food Safety Hazards Associated with Consumption of Raw Milk,” a deeply flawed study that misrepresents the actual risks involved with raw milk from small-scale dairies producing products that they intend to be consumed raw.
Most importantly, the associations spent time lobbying against the bill and testified at the Committee hearing. These associations carry a great deal of influence at the Legislature, and they have successfully blocked many bills far less controversial than the raw milk bill.
While dealing with the painful loss of a promising bill for this year, the effort was far from wasted. We laid important groundwork in Texas for coming back in the next legislative session and getting the bill passed then. And the lessons learned in Texas can serve to help raw milk proponents all over the country in their fights.
We must now anticipate that the medical associations will not sit on the sidelines, but will actively lobby against any expansion of access to raw milk. That means warning bill sponsors to be prepared, and preemptively addressing the mainstream medical establishment’s claims. Not only do we need the data about the rarity of illnesses caused by raw milk (which we had in Texas), we also need to develop materials explaining the flaws with the medical establishment’s paradigm of sterilizing its way to safety.
In addition, the industry opposition to raw milk has been shown to be fractured. By reaching out at the farmer-to-farmer level, we can try to build alliances with the conventional farmers facing a crisis in their businesses. As is common in conventional agriculture, the industry associations are representing the interests of the large, consolidated companies, not the family farmer. We can create bridges that bypass the industry associations and highlight the shared interests of raw milk farmers and other family dairy producers.