Christine Stuart photo
A dairy cow at the University of Connecticut waits to be milked at the Francis E. Osborne Kellogg Dairy Center. All of UConn’s milk is distributed for pasteurization. (Christine Stuart photo)

The debate over the sale of raw milk in Connecticut retail stores has come to a close for this year’s legislative session because the bill, which would have confined the sale of raw milk to dairy farms, was never raised for a vote.

The Department of Agriculture introduced the bill this year after seven children were infected by E coli found in raw milk from a Simsbury farm.

Three of the seven children sickened in the outbreak had to undergo kidney dialysis, according to the testimony submitted by the Department of Public Health to the legislature’s Environment Committee.

The Simsbury farm has since gone out of business, but several children were still under the care of doctors long after their consumption of the milk, according to Wayne Kasacek, assistant director of the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Regulation and Inspection.

The incident at the Simsbury farm led state lawmakers to propose a bill eliminating the sale of raw milk in local stores and would have required farmers to develop costly tests for their cows and their milk. Farmers said these measures could have put many dairy farms out of business.

Kathy Smith, events manager for The Farmer’s Cow, said she grew up on raw milk and drinking it has never caused her a problem. The Farmer’s Cow is a group of six Connecticut family farms that sell pasteurized milk to local stores.

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“We support local dairies,” Smith said. “We know how important it is. It’s their livelihood.”

Smith said there’s a place for raw milk and a place for pasteurized milk. If dairies are clean and follow appropriate procedures, then there shouldn’t be a problem, she said.

Chris Newtown from Baldwin Brook Farm in Canterbury distributes raw milk. He said his 20 cows participate in rotational grazing which allows the cows to remain in clean pastures and graze on fresh grass. Newton explained that even the well water the cows drink is tested to ensure the cleanliness of his farm

While many farms support the production of raw milk the Department of Agriculture is charged with protecting the public, Kasacek, who doesn’t think raw milk is a good idea, said. He said sometimes the public shouldn’t consume raw food. Raw milk, just like raw eggs and hamburger meat are foods that should be cooked before consumption, he said.

Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, said lawmakers ultimately backed away from the bill because they saw that farmers were willing to step up and voluntarily resolve the issues raised by the Department of Agriculture on their own. The Department of Agriculture “is responding with a huge sledgehammer,” by proposing this bill, Urban has said.

Milk produced at the University of Connecticut is distributed for pasteurization. The university milks 90 to 95 cows three times a day at their dairy barn.

Before any milking is done the milking station is hosed down and sanitized before the cows enter. Once the cows reach the milking area their udders are sanitized with iodine and wiped down with a cloth before milking. . Sheila Andrew, an associate professor and extension dairy specialist in the Department of Animal Science at the University of Connecticut, said the “cluster and claw” device is attached to the cow’s teats and removes milk similar to the action of the calf.  This gadget has four rubber lined claws for the cow’s four teats. Like a vacuum the “cluster and claw” alternates between squeezing and not squeezing the cows’ teats to remove milk, Andrew said.

Christine Stuart photo
Shelia Andrew, an associate professor and extension dairy specialist in the Department of Animal Science at the University of Connecticut, explains the milking process (Christine Stuart photo)

A dairy worker at the barn said it’s not a painful process and the cows actually enjoy it. After the cows are milked, their teats are sanitized once more with iodine. The milk is either distributed to the university’s dairy bar so it can be made into ice cream or it is delivered to AgriMark where it is made into cheese, butter or sold as drinking milk.

The UConn herd is enrolled in a monthly dairy testing program in which many dairy herds participate. The amount of milk each cow produces is recorded and the samples are tested for fat, protein and somatic cells.

Somatic cells are white blood cells that are involved in immunity and fighting an infection and is an indicator of milk quality and if increased may indicate that the cow has an infection of the udder called mastitis. Bacteria can invade the udder and cause mastitis or in more rare occasions, cows can harbor a bacteria (from their environment) that can be harmful to humans. These harmful bacteria are easily killed by pasteurization of milk. If someone were to ingest infected unpasteurized milk from a cow with a harmful bacteria there is a possibility that someone would get sick. Andrew said it’s a low risk but a person with impaired immunity due to another disease or the very young or very old, would be at risk.

As for raw milk Andrew doesn’t see any health related benefits.

“We’ve come a long way in pasteurization so it doesn’t affect the flavor of milk,” she said. The pasteurization process heats milk and then rapidly cools it down to retain its flavor. Most of the milk’s nutrients are preserved as well. Only 10 percent of vitamin C is destroyed while vitamins A and D are added to the pasteurized milk, since milk is not a good source of these vitamins, Andrew said.

She said education of the risk for consuming raw milk is very important.

“People need to know the risks to drinking raw milk and the answer is education so they understand what they are consuming,” Andrew said. She explained those with low immune systems are more susceptible to the bacteria that may be in raw milk.

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The sign in the entrance way to the milking station (Christine Stuart photo )

Dorothy Hayes, a member of Connecticut’s Dairy Industry Council and owner of House of Hayes farm in North Granby agrees that the public needs to be aware of the risks involved in drinking raw milk.

She explained that there is a lot of protein in raw milk and if it is left out on the counter for even a half hour, the milk’s temperature goes up and the bacteria in it begins to grow leading to harmful illnesses.

Although raw milk may have its risks Hayes said raw milk can really save a farm.

Her farm only sells pasteurized milk, but believes raw milk has its place in the industry. Hayes said the practice should be regulated with cleanliness and sanitation.

Connecticut farmers are aware that regulation needs to take place among farms and that is why they are developing a standardized handbook for farms who sell raw milk and cheese, Melynda Naples of Deerfield Farm in Durham said. The legal entity and guidebook is called Best Practices.

The book’s contents come from scientific evidence that will allow dairy farms to participate in the same practices, Newton said.

Naples said farmers are also trying to get a milk pathogen test conducted monthly instead of quarterly by the state. The tests lawmakers had proposed to test each cow’s fecal matter involved a price tag that isn’t feasible for any business, she said.

To ensure the monthly pathogen testing farmers are applying for grants.

“We’re looking to nonprofit funding entities to basically work with us to provide financial assistance to get the testing,” Newton said

Kasecek said the opponents of the recent bill promoted raw milk as safe and superior to pasteurized milk.

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“Raw milk advocates are claiming all sorts of unsubstantiated things,” Kasacek said. Opponents claimed raw milk could cure diabetes and be used to treat asthma, he said.

If that was the case doctors would be prescribing raw milk to patients, he said.

“It is an inherently unsafe food,” Kasacek said who stands by testimony from the Food and Drug Administration and other national organizations that believe pasteurized milk is a safer and smarter choice.

Naples said the same risks of contamination that exists for bottling raw milk exists for pasteurized milk as well. Newton said raw milk is just another choice of what consumers choose drink.

This isn’t the first time a raw milk bill has been in legislation. Kasacek said in 2001, the Department of Agriculture proposed keeping the sale of raw milk in farm stores only, but it was defeated by the legislature.