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Legislation would ease dairy rules

Small farms could bypass inspections

When Dina Farrell and her husband bought an 86-acre farm in Wolfeboro about four years ago, the goal was straightforward enough.

"This was a way to keep my family fed and allowed me to stay at home and bring in a little bit of money," said Farrell, a mother of four, ages 2 to 18.

But Farrell said excessive red tape keeps her from being able to sell enough products in addition to milk to turn much of a profit.

"It's just not cost-effective. You can't run this small a business with all that regulation," Farrell said.

Dairies that produce more than 20 gallons of raw milk a day or any dairies that make products from raw milk are required to apply for a milk sanitation license, which costs between $100 and $350, depending on the size of the operation.

They undergo inspections that test milk for bacteria, antibiotic residues and temperature. For the most part, dairies that produce pasteurized products follow different procedures.

Farrell currently sells raw milk from her property that is produced from two cows and is under the 20-gallon benchmark, but if she were to expand or make cheese with the milk, she would have to pay for a license and have her products inspected.

A bill before the House could change that by exempting farmers like Farrell from the inspections and other requirements imposed upon other farmers who make their own cheese, though grocery stores would still need to sell dairy products only from licensed providers.

It's "all about liberty," said Rep. Warren Groen, a Rochester Republican who co-sponsored the bill, the liberty of farmers to be able to sell their products on their own property.

"The other side of the liberty is the liberty of myself as a consumer not to have to be forced into buying pasteurized, homogenized, licensed, tested products when I just as soon would buy something straight from the farmer," Groen said.

But food safety professionals, legislators and other small farmers worry the bill would compromise New Hampshire's bourgeoning cheesemaking industry and undermine public health.

"It will allow Joe Blow to be making cheese in his kitchen and much raise the potential of someone getting sick, which will reflect on all of us as licensed cheese-makers," said Valerie Jarvis, who owns Heart Song Farm Goat Cheeses in Gilmanton.

The Centers for Disease Control estimated in 2011 that 48 million Americans - one in six - suffers from food poisoning annually. Of them, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.

"I'm thoroughly convinced that you don't want anybody selling anything to everybody without any regulation," said Rep. Dave Babson, an Ossipee Republican and farmer who opposes loosening regulations on raw cheese producers. He said he drinks raw milk produced by his cows, but he won't sell it out of fear he could be sued if someone fell ill.

"Milk is really the most highly regulated food product there is," said Lorraine Stuart Merrill, the state commissioner of agriculture who also owns a 270-acre dairy farm with 240 milking cows in Stratham.

"It's so perishable. It is vulnerable to contamination to mishandling, temperature. Cleanliness is of the utmost importance," Merrill said.

Cheese can be more complicated, farmers said, because it requires milk to be heated within a specific timetable to allow bacteria to be cultivated at just the right time.

Advocates of the bill argue it would allow small farmers to do legally what they are doing illegally now - selling small amounts of dairy products to local residents who understand the risks of non-inspected, unpasteurized goods.

"If (small farmers) really want to go start selling it to retail stores or outside of their area, it means they're going to have to expand enough so it comes under the regulations that's required for inspection," said Rep. Stephen Palmer, a Milford Republican.

But even a few dozen so-called "micro farmers" who have just a few cows could make a huge impact on public health and the cheese industry if they hit the markets with unregulated cheese, opponents say.

It takes roughly a gallon of milk to make a pound of cheese, according to Jarvis. So, though farmers with just two cows at first glance don't seem like they would have much of an effect on the market, a dozen unregulated cheesemakers could wreak havoc on the industry in the area of public safety, she said.

"They're asking for 20 gallons a day worth, which is 20 pounds a day," she said.

That adds up to 7,300 pounds a year.

"We've worked very hard to bring cheesemakers from being some stupid farmers up to being professionals in the eyes of the public and the restaurants that we deal with, and we don't want to see that change because somebody gets sick," said Jarvis, who estimated she produces about 10,000 pounds of cheese a year.

Advocates of the House bill argue that consumers can decide for themselves if raw cheese from unlicensed dairies is safe to eat.

"Any consumer that paid attention in high school has enough knowledge - if their high school did a decent job - has enough knowledge to make an informed decision," said Groen, who said he drinks raw milk from a licensed dairy but would be open to buying it from an unlicensed one.

"If you take it home, and you guys get sick, you think, 'Hm, maybe I don't want to do business with this guy,' " Groen said.

But opponents argue it's simply not reasonable to expect consumers, even those who might have been raised on a farm, to be able to determine if cheese made from raw milk is safe to consume.

"There's plenty of bacteria and so forth that don't smell," Merrill said. "Some of the worst ones you can't detect."

Example: listeria, which Jarvis said can grow rapidly in milk. It was also the source of an outbreak that started in July that infected 146 people in 28 states, causing 30 deaths and one miscarriage, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Advocates for the bill point out that inspections are critical for large production facilities that run a higher risk of more people contaminating the products, and that illnesses can occur even in inspected facilities.

Farrell said her farm is so small she doesn't need the state to test her milk or inspect her facility, though she said she sometimes sends her milk to Vermont, where testing is cheaper.

"I know exactly what's in my milk," she said. "It's safe."

But some animals become sick and show no symptoms, farmers said.

"I had a goat that had mastitis but wasn't showing any clinical signs of it," Jarvis said. Only regular testing by the state Department of Health and Human Services of her dairy's milk raised a flag.

And infections can be transferred through milk, Merrill said. Rabies, for instance, can be transmitted from an infected animal to a human through raw - but not unpasteurized - milk. Such a circumstance is so rare that she could not cite a time it happened in New Hampshire.

The bill, which will go through a work session at 1 p.m. today at the Legislative Office Building, would also exempt small farmers from needing an annual $50 homestead license to sell nondairy goods such as pies, fudge, jams and in places like farmers markets. It would also repeal a requirement that farm equipment such as tractors be insured and establish a study committee to examine the state Department of Agriculture.

"If we can improve the efficiency and the function of state government, I'm all for that," Groen said.

(Molly A.K. Connors can be reached at 369-3319 or mconnors@cmonitor.com.)