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Colorado considers allowing sales of raw milk in latest “food freedom” legislation

Dairy cows graze a pasture of ryegrass, alfalfa, and orchard grass.
Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America
A dairy cow, “Daffy,” grazes a pasture of ryegrass, alfalfa, and orchard grass at the Larga Vista Ranch in Boone.

The Colorado Sun originally published this story at 4:00 AM on January 19, 2024.

Coloradans could buy raw milk at farms, farmers markets, and roadside stands — but not grocery stores — under legislation aimed at giving consumers the power to choose their own food.

The “food freedom” bill would open up direct sales of unpasteurized milk, or milk that hasn’t been heated to kill bacteria, from farmers to customers, but would not impact a creative workaround that for decades has allowed people who want raw milk to get it by purchasing shares in a sheep, goat or cattle herd.

Colorado has some of the most restrictive raw milk rules in the West, an attempt by public health officials to protect people from getting sick from harmful pathogens, including E. coli, salmonella, and campylobacter. The only way to legally buy raw milk in this state is to sign a bill of sale to become part owner of a herd, a transaction that typically specifies that the dairy farmer will feed and milk the cows for you.

The herd-share arrangement is legal because farmers are allowed to consume their own products.

But under a proposal that got a 7-0 vote in its first Capitol hearing Thursday, dairy farmers could choose to instead open up raw milk sales at their farm or drive their containers of milk to farmers markets and roadside stands and sell them to any customers who stop by.

“This bill is about freedom and choice,” said Sen. Dylan Roberts, a Summit County Democrat and prime sponsor of the legislation. “But it’s also, importantly, about promoting our local agriculture producers.”

Sen. Byron Pelton, a Sterling Republican and the bill’s other prime sponsor, said he grew up drinking raw milk, so he knows its benefits as well as its risks. “I’ve had family members who’ve been sick from raw milk before,” he said.

The senators began discussing the bill over the summer after reading an article about the food freedom movement in The Colorado Sun, and they took care to add safeguards, Pelton said.

Raw milk farmers would have to label every container with their name, date, and a warning that raw dairy products “may increase your risk of foodborne illness,” including that children, pregnant women, and older people are at higher risk. The legislation also requires that containers of milk be kept below 40 degrees during transport and that milk producers register with the state, which would investigate complaints and inspect milk operations.

Violations of the rules could result in a fine of $500 per container of milk.

The bill is modeled after laws in Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, and other farming states and comes after years of requests from raw milk enthusiasts across Colorado, the senators said during a Senate agriculture committee hearing. If it passes, the Colorado Department of Agriculture and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment would create additional rules regarding milk storage or transport.

Proponents of raw milk, who say its enzymes help with digestion and that its vitamins and minerals come with numerous health benefits, showed up in support of the measure — but with some requests.

A few said they were concerned that the state health department, which has been warning about the risks of raw milk for decades, would have authority to make rules and regulate sales.

“My family loves it, and my eight grandchildren now are benefiting from raw milk,” said Nancy Eason, leader of the Fort Collins Chapter of the Weston A. Price Foundation, which advocates for adding nutrient-dense foods into the American diet.

“Who would be setting the standards? Good bills are passed, and then nasty rules are written.”

She and others also complained about the $1,000 fine per container of milk that was initially in the bill. During the committee hearing, lawmakers amended the maximum fine to $500. “If there are 10 gallons on your truck, that’s $10,000 right there, and that would put a lot of these guys and gals out of business,” Eason said.

The $500 fine matches Colorado’s cage-free egg statute, which allows for fines up to $500 per carton of eggs. In three years, however, the state Department of Agriculture has never fined an egg producer and instead has worked with them to fix violations, Roberts said.

A man unloads bottles of raw milk at a farmer's market.
Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America
Kenneth Gardner, a shareholder of Larga Vista Farm in Boone since 2007, helps unload bottles of raw milk at the Colorado Farm and Art Market in Colorado Springs, where milk is distributed to shareholders. Gardner gets a majority of his food and groceries from local sources and farms and frequently makes kefir out of Larga Vista’s milk.

If passed, the legislation is predicted to cost about $100,000 per year, mainly in staff and travel to inspect raw dairy farms.

Julie Ebert, co-owner of Ebert Family Farms in Byers, asked lawmakers to drop the requirement that farmers label every container of milk with the date. Raw milk doesn’t spoil; it sours and ferments and does not become dangerous to drink, she said. Labeling each container daily would require excessive manual labor at her already busy farm, she said.

The Ebert farm has been selling shares in its cow herd for 18 years so that its customers on the plains east of Denver can purchase raw milk.

“We have a very good system for rotating milk and making sure that it doesn’t go out when it’s old,” she said.

Lawmakers said they did not want to interfere with Colorado’s long-standing herd-share arrangements because many small farmers have relied on them for years.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of unpasteurized milk across state lines in 1987. The FDA maintains there are no health benefits to drinking raw milk and that it’s unsafe, but states are free to make their own laws.

And they have. In Wyoming, Oregon, Montana, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, farmers are allowed to sell raw milk directly to consumers, such as straight from the farm or at farmer's markets. Retail milk sales are legal in Utah, Idaho, Washington, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and California.

The raw milk push is part of the farm-to-table movement and a desire for less government interference in food choices. Other examples in Colorado in recent years include loosening restrictions on local, custom meat processing and the Cottage Foods Act, which lets people sell goods made in their own kitchens, with no license or inspection required. The Raw Milk Association of Colorado lists more than 230 farmsthat sell raw milk, including options for milk from sheep, yaks, and camels.

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