FRANKFORT — Families who want to drink fresh raw milk without buying their own dairy herds are backing a bill to sanction "cow sharing."
The practice lets people buy into a herd and share the resulting milk, cheese and other dairy products. Proponents say raw milk is more nutritious and delicious.
"Right now, shared ownership isn't illegal, but it is not recognized," said John-Mark Hack of Marskbury Farm Market in Lancaster, who testified in favor of the bill before the Senate Agriculture Committee last month.
Hack said 80 or 90 Lexington families might share ownership in a herd to get access to fresh dairy products. "This would legitimize those arrangements," he said.
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Sponsored by Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, the legislation was sent to the Senate floor, but a vote was delayed. Schickel said last week that he wanted to give more farm groups a chance to air concerns but said he's hopeful that a comfort level can be reached that will allow a vote this week.
"These are food-liberty issues," Schickel said. "There's a whole movement in Kentucky and around the country for people to eat healthy and get closer to the source of their food."
Opponents say the bill could be dangerous.
"This is a step closer to the legitimizing the sale of raw milk to consumers, which we're against," said Maury Cox, executive director of the Kentucky Dairy Development Council.
While Cox's group doesn't see anything wrong with herd-sharing partnerships, they are worried this could lead to selling unpasteurized milk.
"If you have several people in cow shares, you have to ask, is this a loophole? Is this an effort to have no regulatory oversight in the process to consumers?" he said.
Drinking unpasteurized milk could be dangerous, especially for children and the elderly, Cox said, pointing to the potential for tuberculosis, brucellosis, E. coli and salmonella contamination. A recent outbreak of campylobacter illness that sickened at least 38 people in four states has been linked to raw milk sold from a Pennsylvania dairy.
Kentucky Department of Public Health regulations prohibit the sale of milk that has not been pasteurized. Pasteurization involves heating milk to kill dangerous bacteria.
But raw-milk advocate Sally O'Boyle of Lexington said the milk is no more dangerous than cantaloupe or spinach, both of which have been linked to outbreaks of food-borne illness. Raw-milk sales are legal in several states, she said.
"I drink raw milk; I'm very into nutrition," O'Boyle said. "What this bill does is protect the agreements between farmers and consumers. I contract with a farmer, lease a cow, pay him to take care of the cow, and I get to drink the milk."
Cow sharing or herd sharing is a way for her to get the food she wants and thinks is healthier, she said.
"A lot of people do this. It's a huge movement in the United States," O'Boyle said. "Big ag and big dairy don't want the raw-milk movement to catch on because they see it as competition. It's not dangerous."
Presidential candidate Ron Paul of Texas has filed legislation in Congress to legalize raw-milk sales.
Cox, of the dairy development council, acknowledged this is a potentially lucrative market.
"Some dairy farmers want to sell it because they can sell it at a premium," he said. "Because this is emotionally driven, people will pay considerably more than for other milk."
The bill has the backing of the Community Farm Alliance, which supports small family farmers.
"This bill is really, really important to the small family farm in Kentucky," said Linda Stone, who runs Brook-Lin Jerseys in Scott County. "The popularity of 'buy local, buy fresh' has just mushroomed."
Cox said an outbreak of illness linked to raw milk won't taint just the supplier. "Our farmers make their living off the sale of milk," he said. "When you have a news story about an outbreak, everybody gets hurt."
But Schickel said that raw milk is less risky than pasteurized milk and that Kentucky could be overlooking the economic potential of cow sharing.
"I think our state has a great opportunity, so I want to make sure we encourage it and not stifle it. ... It's amazing the number of people interested in this," he said. "And it's not your traditional alliances here. We've got everything from very conservative Tea Partiers to environmentalists, who all want it."