Dairy farm owner Doug Stephan pleads his case for legalizing raw milk to Framingham Board of Health.

After all the debate and discussion on this blog and in various media, there was something surrealistic about being in a legally binding open forum discussion about whether raw milk should be allowed in the town of Framingham, MA.

In many ways, it mirrored the debate that’s occurred here and elsewhere on the Internet, with passionate arguments among regulators. However, the 50 or so consumers who showed up were overwhelmingly in favor of legalization, with only one speaking out against raw milk.

A woman from the Ukraine, who said raw milk was regularly delivered in her city of one million, said that when she came to the U.S. a few years ago, “I could not believe a free country would regulate raw milk to such a point that I would have to travel many miles to get it.”

A Framingham town meeting member said she had gotten together with nine other town meeting members to discuss the issue. “At first I was skeptical. I have since come around to support it.” All nine of her colleagues came to support it as well, she said. “I choose not to drink raw milk, but I support the right.”

Framingham is a large town, population 67,000, about 20 miles west of Boston, and local radio personality Doug Stephan, owner of one of the last remaining dairy farms in the area, wants to sell raw milk to gain some positive cash flow, what with his chain of radio stations being hammered by the recession.

The town’s Board of Health needed to approve the raw milk sale so Doug could apply to the state’s Department of Agricultural Resources, which issues licenses for sale directly from farms. When 75 proponents showed up for a hearing last month, the board continued the matter until last night’s meeting.

Michael Hugo, the board’s chairman, and a personal injury lawyer, indicated the sensitivity of the matter when he opened the discussion by saying, “No more hiding.”

The board’s director and legal counsel, Ethan Mascoop, said the board has been lobbied on both sides of the issue by other state regulators—the state’s Department of Agricultural Resources had written a letter strongly supporting Doug Stephan, saying the high prices being paid for raw milk represented “a silver lining” that has helped the 26 farms in the state licensed to sell it survive an otherwise nasty economic environment.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health also wrote a letter, diametrically opposed, saying it “continues to have grave concerns about the safety of raw milk” as “a significant public health threat.”

There followed three hours of discussion, during which time yours truly tried to provide perspective on the situation nationally, as well as locally. I took issue with the state’s Department of Public Health, arguing that while raw milk may be riskier than pasteurized milk, neither kind of milk is anything approaching a serious public health risk. I wondered how the public health people could say raw milk represents a “significant public health threat” when the state hasn’t had a single illness for more than ten years, since a group of boy scouts became ill in 1999 during a visit to a farm.

Michael Hugo, the chairman, interrupted me to say he had investigated the 1999 illnesses and that those kids had not only never before consumed raw milk, but had been given milk from a vat intended for pasteurization. I hadn’t realized that, but that just made my case stronger.

In the end, the three-person board was split. Nelson Goldin made clear he favored legalization. Tammy Harris, a physician, said she wouldn’t be persuaded. “It’s hard for me to forget about all the history. I don’t see a reason to change the status quo with regard to pasteurization.

That left it up to Michael Hugo, the chairman. “When I started out, there was not way in hell we were going to allow raw milk in Framingham,” he said. “I have now come full circle.” A visit to Doug Stephan’s farm had helped convince him, he said.

The vote was two-to-one in favor of allowing Doug Stephan to sell raw milk from his farm.

It was a tedious session, at times, and there are still some regulations to be written. But in the end, consumers made their wishes known, and the regulators overcame their prejudices and did the right thing.