When battles over raw milk regulation break out in one state or another, public health professionals invariably argue it is entirely about food safety and protecting the public. Yet sometimes the political and business realities that underlie much of the battle over raw milk assert themselves, despite the regulators’ best efforts to keep them under cover. Such is the situation in Illinois, where thirty years of raw milk peace have been disturbed by an unexpected regulatory blitz apparently initiated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration via a financial grant to Illinois and pushed along by its friends at Dean Foods, the monopoly that controls America’s pasteurized milk business. Its real intent, based on the rigidity of the proposed rules and required added expenses for small dairies, seems to be to shutter as many tiny dairies as possible so as to eliminate as much competition to Dean Foods as possible. 

In this article, naturopath and food freedom activist Rosanne Lindsay recounts events at a hearing held last Thursday on the proposed Illinois raw milk regulations, and wonders whether the push to throw small dairies out of business in Illinois can be halted. Lindsay is also author of The Nature of Healing: Heal the Body, Heal the Planet.

by Rosanne Lindsay

On my way from Wisconsin to Indiana last Thursday, I detoured to Springfield, Illinois, with friends to attend a day-long public hearing on new rules proposed by the Illinois Department of Public health (IDPH) to regulate small raw milk dairies. It reminded me of similar hearings in Wisconsin years earlier–somehow it seems that on the highway of life, the road to raw milk freedom is paved with regulators.

Leading up to the Illinois hearing,  a raw milk working group (formally known as the Illinois Raw Milk Subcommittee) spent more than a year to reach what should have been an acceptable compromise. The work group consisted of members of the Farm Bureau, state regulators, consumers, raw milk farmers, along with a representative of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (Larry Terando) and of Dean Foods (Roger Hooi). Before its meetings were done, the big guys were understood to have taken over this group. 

Perhaps from the IDPH’s view, it seemed like a compromise, in that the group proposed strict regulation of the state’s dairies selling raw milk, requiring expensive equipment in addition to testing and inspections, even for the tiniest of dairies. But to many of these small dairies, the proposed regulations portend the end of a delicate balance that had them working the land for minimal financial returns, and a satisfying relationship with members of their community who value nutrient-dense food.

When IDPH launched its initial assault in 2012, it came at Illinois raw dairy farmers with a huge chip on its shoulder, trying to put them all out of business by banning the sale of raw milk in the state. It was hard not to see it as a hostile, even hateful, solution in search of a problem, since Illinois has legally enjoyed direct unlicensed, farm-to-consumer sales of raw milk for more than thirty years. Reports on illnesses vary slightly, with some saying there have been no cases of foodborne illness related to raw milk since 1998, and some media saying there have been minimal problems–two instances of illnesses over that 15-year time span, but no hospitalizations.

Many believe IDPH’s policy shift from no involvement to shipwrecking crew reflected collaboration with the FDA, to obtain at least one financial grant of nearly $1 million in 2012 to impose new restrictions over small farms. The assault was rejected last year by the Illinois legislature, though.  Ironically, no State legislators were present Thursday to listen to their constituents, due to a “scheduling conflict,” though four state regulators participated.

A handful of paid regulators from various state health agencies testified along the official line that, “Raw milk is dangerous and must be strictly regulated for public health and safety.” In contrast, the majority of non-regulators who testified were ordinary people: teachers, parents, musicians, holistic practitioners, a pilot, and several small farmers. These represented some 400,000 estimated raw milk drinkers in Illinois, by some estimates.

Many shared information and personal healing stories from raw milk and real food when medical options failed. Some testified in favor of fair rules, while others argued that people should be able to continue to purchase the foods of their choice without government interference.

“Your heavy handed attempts at overregulation are destroying the specialty crop industry as related to milk producers.” – Tim Moore

“As proposed, the underlying purpose of these regulations is to stop the sale of raw milk.” – small farmer

Probably the most convincing testimony came from small-farm-owner Cliff McConville of Barrington Natural Farms, who presented results from a survey of local, small farmers he personally conducted, showing how the new rules would adversely impact nearly two-thirds of small producers. His results:

            -Only 14% would obtain the permit

            -46% would continue to produce without a permit

            -25% would stop selling raw milk

            -21% were unsure

Thus, the survey results suggest that many producers would either go underground, or would shut down due to the expenditures needed to comply with operational and recordkeeping requirements, since half or more earn less than $15,000 annually. Further, these rules would not only compromise the local food initiative, but also discourage small sustainable farms and local economies, as well as cut state revenue at a time Illinois faces bankruptcy.

What IDPH needs to know, according to a number who testified, is that there are two raw milks; one for pasteurization and one for consumption. Dead milk vs. live milk. Factory farm GMO-fed, sick cows vs. grass-fed, healthy cows. Raw milk dairies should not be made to conform to the low standards of dirty commercial dairies that must pasteurize a toxic product. Any true health-based raw milk standard should be vetted at the level of raw milk to reflect the health of the source, the cow.

“IDPH is not qualified to make law over nature’s law. I respect your way of life and I ask that you respect mine.” – Keith Sparks, pilot

“If there’s not a problem, why fix it? People should be able to purchase the food they want for their families without government interference.” – Jonathan Sharr, businessman

“You cannot legislate responsibility and that is what this legislation attempts to do.” – Michael Detweiler, Chiropractor

The anger, confusion, and frustration expressed by the approximately 75 people present at the hearing reflect the relationship real people have with real food. The testimony was reflective of the 800-plus comments IDPH says it has already received, and that prompted the agency to extend the comment period until December 4; comments can be submitted here.

Passions run high when people see their freedoms being siphoned away. The fate of the proposed raw milk rule-making remains to be seen. So long as Dean Foods and the FDA have their hands in what should be a local process, you know the odds are tough. Surprisingly, it’s the volume and intensity of comments that have kept the process going as long as it has. More will clearly be needed for any hope to keep raw dairy afloat in Illinois.