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California Seeks Middle Ground with Underground Raw Milk Producers

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(Sacramento, CA)
Thursday, May 3, 2012

Retail sales of raw milk are soaring at Organic Pastures, one of the two licensed raw milk companies in California, says company CEO Mark McAfee.

Another small raw milk producer in El Dorado County has a similar story.

"I have a waiting list and it keeps getting longer," says Pattie Chelseth of Shingle Springs. "People are absolutely flocking to understand the health benefits of raw milk."

Chelseth runs a herdshare. It's a co-ownership agreement where neighbors pay a monthly fee for her to board the animal and supply them with milk.

At least fifteen families pick up their share of raw milk each week from Chelseth's farm in El Dorado County. They pay what amounts to about $15 dollars a gallon and are known to drive a half an hour to get it.

But Chelseth and other raw milk operators have come under legal fire. Chelseth was served with a cease and desist order from the state for operating without a license. But she says she's not selling milk.

"This is private ownership, it's private property," says Chelseth. "If you own the cow, you can drink her milk. There's nothing illegal about that. So where is this different? We have 15 people who own the cow, and they can drink the milk."

Sources say there are at least 100 herdsharers like Chelseth in California. It's estimated that each herdshare operation makes unpasteurized milk available to ten, to as many as 350 people.

"We found out about each other, and we started organizing, and then we found out there's a lot. And so we're kind of the voice now for these people who are afraid to come out of the barn (laughs) with good reason."

The word "herdshare" doesn't exist in California Food and Agriculture code. Chelseth says modifying her tiny operation in order to get a license would be cost prohibitive. The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) convened a working group to figure out how to deal with the licensing of the smallest of dairies.

CDFA's State Veterinarian Dr. Annette Whiteford says the state recognizes there's a trend in local food production, and that includes small raw milk producers.  

"A lot of people have an interest in trying to kind of go back to their roots and make food the old way," she says. "Other people are trying to meet cultural niches."

She says the "small herd working group" is talking about how to incorporate small-scale raw milk producers into safety and sanitation standards.  

"Every time you feed your child food, you want to count that it's just as safe as it was last time you gave it to them. So food safety was the number one priority, but then could we re-look at our food safety regulations and see if we could remove some of the barriers - the cost prohibitive barriers - to providing that safe product," says Whiteford.

0503PB graphic smallBut Chelseth, who's a member of the working group doesn't understand why the government wants to regulate operations like hers. Her fellow cowsharers don't get sick from raw milk, she says.

"Where does the government get off having that power to regulate the private? I understand there being the public. I understand the need for that now, because the food industry has made that so. But this is not industrialized food. It's kind of stepping forward into the past, this local food movement."

But raw milk has been linked to serious illness in California - and recently. Outbreaks have been associated with both an underground herdshare and products available at the store. UC Davis dairy safety expert Dr. Jim Cullor says even in the pioneer days, people understood the benefits of pasteurizing milk.

"They knew that they needed to heat the milk and make sure the bacteria counts were low… Even in China, in inner Mongolia, the tribes, the people that lived out on the planes, the mares milk and the cows milk that they do…they heat it."  

Cullor thinks even small producers should be adhering to the pasteurized milk standard to help reduce the health risks milk pathogens pose to people with vulnerable immune systems.

"I encourage dairy producers to grow and have their enterprises, and support their families and support their communities, but we have to be careful about our food products," says Dr. Cullor.  

Annette Whiteford of the CDFA says the state is committed to reaching consensus about food safety in the small milk working group. But it might take a while.

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