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New Alaska legislative effort could legalize raw milk sales

A new effort to legalize raw milk sales and expand the use of fresh produce in Alaska schools has emerged in the Legislature.

Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, prefiled House Bill 46 last week. Her agriculture bill would not only legalize the direct sale of raw milk from farmers to consumers, it will also amend another state law.

The amendment will allow state and local governments to show buying preferences for local food products, as long as the difference in expense to Outside products is no more than 15 percent.

Tarr said in a phone interview from Juneau Thursday she hopes the bill will serve as an omnibus agriculture bill for the session that started Tuesday.

Direct sales of unpasteurized milk are currently illegal. However, individuals can acquire raw milk by buying a "share" in a milking animal.

Raw milk is milk straight from the animal — neither homogenized nor pasteurized. As locally sourced food has gained popularity, so has interest in raw milk, which some believe is a healthier, less processed option to store-bought milk.

Pasteurized milk is heated to 161 degrees for about 15 seconds, a process that kills harmful bacteria and, some say, reduces the milk's natural benefits as well.

It's not the first effort in recent years to legalize sales of raw milk. A bill with similar language was introduced by Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, in 2008. The bill stalled in committee.

Language from that bill was taken verbatim for Tarr's legislation. The proposed law would only allow for sale of unpasteurized milk with a warning label to make buyers aware that the product may pose health concerns.

The bill doesn't address whether there would be additional oversight on the product, such as inspections, but Tarr said she expects the Department of Environmental Conservation would generate regulations for the sale of raw milk.

Tarr said she decided to introduce the raw-milk legislation after talking with farmers last year who said the restriction was burdensome.

Tarr said legalizing raw milk could help build the state's small dairy industry, which has struggled historically. Efforts in the 1980s to build a thriving industry using millions in state funding were ultimately unsuccessful, and are often cited as a reason the state shouldn't get directly involved in private development.

But by making raw milk sales legal, Tarr said, it's possible that small- and medium- size producers could form cooperatives or find other ways to sell their product by starting small.

"You have the gap between a startup and something that's big," she said. "And I would say if we want to have a strong agriculture industry, then the dairy sector is a big missing piece of that right now."

Barb Hanson, DEC dairy sanitarian, oversees the complex regulations related to the dairy industry in Alaska. There are only two commercial dairies operating in in the state — Havemeister Dairy in Palmer and Northern Lights Dairy in Delta Junction.

Hanson said the department does not keep track of the number of people purchasing milk shares.

She said milk is considered a high-risk food due to incidents of foodborne illness. Infection outbreaks related to raw milk, while not common, are not unheard of.

In 2013, four people living Kenai became ill with the campylobacter bacteria that was related to drinking raw milk. In 2011, 18 people with probable or confirmed cases of the illness became sick after drinking raw milk linked to a Mat-Su farmer.

Raw milk has been associated with other bacteria, including E. coli, listeria and salmonella. According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, consuming such products can result in possible illness or even death.

Heather Fair, co-founder and administrator of the Alaska Alliance for Raw Milk, a grass-roots group, said people should be allowed to make their own decisions related to raw milk.

Fair, who owns a herd of 50 milking goats in Juneau, said interest in raw milk appears to be rising across the country. She said people in Alaska choose it partially as a preference for local food and for others because of perceived health benefits of drinking the unpasteurized product.

She said people should be allowed to choose whether or not to consume the product.

"If raw milk is not for you, that's fine, you have the right to not purchase it or to pasteurize it," she said.

The bill also separately increases the amount the state and local governments can spend buying local food. Currently, the state can purchase local agriculture products if they are no more that 7 percent more expensive than a similar product grown in the Lower 48.

Tarr, who asked for a legislative audit on agricultural purchase preference in July 2015, found local agricultural products were often priced more than 7 percent higher than Outside products.

Tarr said increasing percentage would make it easier for farmers to get their products purchased by the state. That would possibly increase agricultural opportunities in Alaska.

Tarr acknowledged that it might mean the state pays more for food, but she said it would be a marginal increase of only thousands of dollars — not millions — that would go directly back into local industry.

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