An ambitious and well-meaning attempt to make California’s dairy products safer arrives this week in the California Assembly in the form of State Bill 201—but the country’s top food safety advocates are calling on California legislators to vote against it. The bill places regulations on producers of raw milk dairy products and lays groundwork intended to stem the tide of deadly food borne illnesses tied to the raw milk industry. It sounds good, and may have enough support to reach the Governor’s desk, where the same advocates encourage a veto. What’s the problem?

“It’s difficult to work so hard against a bill that has such good intentions,” said William Marler, food safety advocate and attorney. “But SB 201 actually creates a detour around the regulation of raw milk, and must be re-written before the bill is ready. There are children on life support because of raw milk tainted with E. coli and other toxic bacteria, and there will be more of them in California—and nationwide—unless changes are made to this legislation.”

Rather than detailing the levels of fecal contaminates acceptable in a regulated raw milk product, the bill proposes that raw milk be regulated by a HACCP protocol. HACCP—Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point—is a food safety and self-inspection system that describes procedures for producing potentially dangerous foods. There are national HACCP protocols in place for juice, meat, poultry, and seafood processing, but none for raw milk. Developing a HACCP protocol can take years, and if SB201 is signed as written, California raw milk will enter a black hole of regulation. Companies will be free to produce raw milk essentially unregulated until a HACCP plan is ready.

“Raw milk—given that it is outside the pasteurization process—has inherent risks,” continued Marler. “Illnesses from raw milk and raw colostrumE. coli, campylobacter, and listeria—are on the rise, and we’ve seen first-hand a growing number of consumers whose lives will never be the same because of this product:

Dee Creek Farm E. Coli O157:H7 – 11 ill, 4 with Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, or HUS
Grace Harbor FarmsE. Coli O157:H7 – 2 children ill, one with HUS
Organic PasturesE. Coli O157:H7 – 6 ill, 2 children with HUS
Herb DepotE. Coli O157:H7 – Two children ill
Town Farm DairyE. Coli O157:H7 – 5 ill, 2 with HUS
Alexandre Family EcoDairy Farms – Campylobacter – 15 illnesses, one on a ventilator.”

Raw milk is at the center of a nationwide controversy over its potential value as a nutritional food versus the severe illnesses that can result from contaminated product. Pasteurization was developed to rid dairy products of pathogens like toxic E. coli as well as to assure a longer, safer shelf life. Proponents of raw milk believe that pasteurization also eliminates healthful benefits of the dairy product. (Peer-reviewed literature on the raw milk controversy can be found by clicking here for pro and here for con.)  And, click here for a Legal History of Raw Milk.

“It’s the large producers of raw milk products that SB 201 aims to regulate,” said Marler. “Because of the HACCP loophole, a huge amount of contaminated product could reach the public. This bill is intended to stop them, but instead will give them a free ride for years to come. California Legislators and Governor Schwarzenegger, please send SB 201 back!”