Dairy cow

Lawmakers are mulling potential legislation that would allow raw milk to be sold for people in Georgia while creating state regulations and setting minimum standards for a product that can be vulnerable to harmful bacteria, such as e. coli, if not handled properly.

Credit: Lauren Hedges/Pexels

Raw milk can only be sold in Georgia as a pet product, but there is growing concern about how much of that unpasteurized — and largely unregulated — milk is being sloshed into a glass for human consumption.

A legislative study committee has taken up the issue and is mulling potential legislation that would allow raw milk to be sold for people in Georgia while creating state regulations and setting minimum standards for a product that can be vulnerable to harmful bacteria, such as e. coli, if not handled properly.

State Rep. Clay Pirkle, a Republican and south Georgia farmer, says he is generally wary of regulations but that he sees food safety as the glaring exception. Concerns about public safety, he said, are driving interest in legislation for him.

“Anyone can bottle and sell raw milk under a pet label if they pay a small licensing fee (to the state),” said Pirkle, who is leading the study panel. “No inspections, no regulations, no safety guidelines.”

Pirkle said the study committee will make a recommendation soon on whether lawmakers should consider legislation that could potentially bring raw milk into the mainstream. The regular session starts in January.

Milk being poured down the drain.

A southwest Georgia dairy, Providence Dairy, posted videos on their social media showing milk being dumped early on in the pandemic.

Credit: Screenshot of Facebook video

Some cash-strapped dairy farmers, intrigued by tales of raw milk being sold at a premium at farmers markets across metro Atlanta and north Georgia, also see a chance to reach new customers. In the background are not-so-distant memories of the hundreds of thousands of gallons of raw milk that Georgia producers dumped early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kenneth Murphy, a Meriwether County dairy farmer and lifelong raw milk drinker, and others have argued state intervention would help level the playing field with producers currently working with little government oversight.

“I get roughly $1.60 a gallon. The pet food people get $8 to $10 a gallon for theirs,” Murphy came to Atlanta to tell lawmakers earlier this month. “I’m not going to be able to sell probably the whole 140-cow volume every day, but it will give me an opportunity to get a little bit more money for my milk.”

Farrah Newberry, executive director of Georgia Milk Producers, said a potential raw milk bill is one of the group’s top priorities for next year — second only to so-called right-to-farm legislation that agricultural interests have pushed unsuccessfully the last couple years. But other industry groups, like the National Milk Producers Federation, oppose changes that expand availability.

“We’re not really condoning that everyone should drink raw milk, but we don’t think it’s fair that our guys who are trying to be clean and safe don’t even have the opportunity to take on that liability. You can’t really insure something that’s illegal to sell,” she said.

'It's buyer beware'

Unlike what’s found in jugs on grocery store shelves, raw milk has not been pasteurized. Pasteurization is a process where milk is heated to kill bacteria, but raw milk enthusiasts say it also wipes out naturally occurring enzymes.

The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which spans a five-year period ending in 2012, identified one outbreak in Georgia. Most of the outbreaks happened in states where raw milk sales were legalized.

“I can tell you that DPH does periodically hear about raw milk-associated cases of reportable bacterial infections, but we have not had a Georgia-specific associated outbreak since 2007,” said Nancy Nydam, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Public Health.

The CDC cautions people against drinking raw milk. But Pirkle notes that other popular foods, such as sushi, raw oysters and a runny egg at breakfast, come with their own risks. He says he would insist on requiring a clear, prominent warning label on raw milk products.

“I’m not wanting to advocate that this is safe,” Pirkle said in an interview. “But for those who want to drink it — for whatever reason, they feel like there’s a health benefit to it, some of these people who spend a lot of time in the gym and don’t want anything that has ever been processed and they want it as close to the farm as they can get it.

“Right now, they’re risking their health in consuming raw milk. Because we don’t know if antibiotics have been in the cow, we don’t know if the cattle’s been TB tested, we have no idea what the Somatic cell count is with pet milk. So, it’s buyer beware.”

State Rep. Rebecca Mitchell, a Snellville Democrat and scientist, pushed back on comparisons to other food products.

“It’s really important when we do talk about safety, that we don’t trivialize food safety. So yes, I do eat sushi. I don’t drink raw milk. There are different risks associated,” Mitchell said. “We don’t have to compare the risk from this product to another to know that this product’s risk is real and is substantial.”

Mitchell, who sits on the legislative study committee, said she has concerns about raw milk sales.

“If this bill were to vastly increase the safety of milk products that are currently being sold raw and consumed without regulation on production, it would be something I discuss supporting. If it simply provides more raw milk into the consumer market, it is known I will oppose it,” Mitchell said in an email.

'You're just taking their word for it'

A Google search easily turns up Georgia producers selling raw pet milk. Some of the products are portrayed as being for pets while other descriptions are more thinly veiled. “Just be sure to give it a good shake before drinking!” one Georgia producer advises on its website.

But when Mark Stevens says he sells raw pet milk, that’s what he means. His Carrollton-based dairy goat business uses most of its milk for cheese, but Stevens said he does bottle and sell a portion as raw milk. Most of the milk is sold in pet stores, although he also sells it at farmers markets.

“Our milk is labeled and intended for pet use only. Beyond that, I don’t know,” Stevens said when asked about how much of the raw milk makes its way to a pet.

Stevens, who said he personally consumes raw milk, said he supports state lawmakers setting minimum standards for raw milk, within reason. His business, the Capra Gia Cheese Company, is housed in a Grade A facility, and from his perspective, producers who are not committed to making the necessary upgrades probably should not be selling raw milk to the public.

Stevens said he also thinks those regulations should apply to all raw milk, whether they go to pets or humans.

“If you went to a street vendor, let’s say, and it didn’t look like it was up to standards, you probably wouldn’t eat there,” he said. “Unfortunately, when you’re at a store or a farmers market and you only see the finished product, you don’t see necessarily where it came from. You’re just taking their word for it. And some people aren’t aware of the hazards that could develop.”

Regulations for raw milk vary across the country, with Georgia being among a handful that limit legal sales to pet milk. There are 17 states, including Mississippi, that allow farmers to sell directly to consumers.

Retail sales for humans is legal in 10 states, including neighboring South Carolina. Northeast Georgia residents can cross the Savannah River and buy straight from an Anderson County farmer who has credited supply chain disruptions early in the pandemic for steering milk-thirsty consumers to try the raw stuff.

Newberry with the Georgia Milk Producers predicted only a small increase in raw milk sales, if any, should the state legalize raw milk sales more broadly. She said she only expects small producers to sell it, since other factors — like contracts with a retailer or processor — may bar some farmers from considering it.

“For a really small dairy farm that is struggling right now and they are testing their milk and producing it in a safe and clean way — maybe that’s one way that they can keep their business afloat,” Newberry said. “We recognize the dangers and we have concerns with it, but why are we not allowing this farmer that’s doing the right things to have this opportunity?

“This may be their last hope if they’re going to stay in the dairy business for the small guy,” she said.

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.