There ought to be a Law…Or Not

“Just who decided there ought to be a law?” the young man asked at the hearing. “Who decided buying raw milk should be illegal?”

After ten and a half hours of testimony and 89 speakers, we had the answer. In 1909, Eau Claire passed the first Wisconsin ordinance banning the sale of raw milk. The law was the reaction to public outrage after many who consumed unpasteurized milk were sickened.

The Senate Committee on Agriculture and Higher Education, which I chair, joined the Assembly Committee on Rural Affairs in conducting a public hearing in Eau Claire to consider a pair of bills aimed at repealing the state law banning the sale of unpasteurized milk.

Over six hundred citizens attended the hearing and sounded a cautionary note to legislators who often are quick to respond to constituents who say “there ought to be a law.”

With the words “freedom” and “milk” written in black marker on 650 white paper hats, those attending the hearing repeated a theme of too much government involvement in their refrigerators.

“Sushi is legal and that’s raw fish,” said a woman from West Bend. “Steak tartar is legal and that’s raw meat. Raw oysters and undercooked eggs are legal. Why do I have to break the law to buy raw milk?” Other citizens testified they know raw milk can harbor pathogens. They understand the product is dangerous if not properly stored and served. “Alcohol and cigarettes are dangerous but legal. Why can’t I buy raw milk, which is not nearly deadly?”

The answer is public outrage over food-borne illnesses that caused legislators to pass laws restricting the sale of raw milk years ago. Ironically, health concerns led to these laws and health concerns are leading many to reconsider the laws. Nearly everyone testifying in favor of repealing restrictions on the sale of raw milk testified to the health benefits.

People hailed raw milk as a cure of gall stones, asthma, eczema, diabetes and a number of colon ailments. Those who testified told how raw milk helped one gain weight, lose weight and live a long life. But the themes of freedom, choice and being close to the source of one’s food supply were also paramount in the minds of those who testified.

While some attending the hearing admonished committee members for their insensitivity to the concerns of citizens, I found my colleagues on both sides of the aisle remarkably sensitive to citizens’ concerns. Nearly every legislator with whom I spoke following the hearing said there must be a way to allow limited on-farm sales of fresh milk directly to consumers.

Legislators daily face the challenge of balancing the interests of those who say ‘there ought to be a law’ with those who say ‘or not’. All the laws on the books are the result of similar hearings in previous years when people said ‘there ought to be a law.’ But the law is a blunt instrument and those who apply it struggle to take into account specific circumstances. In areas where there are a lot of specific circumstances there can be a lot of unintended consequences.

And things change. For example, we heard testimony that micro-filtering technology would render milk pathogen free without pasteurization. But the law, by nature, is – well – law; it is hard to allow for flexibility.

This coming week, members of the Ag Committee must grapple with the consequences of repealing the law making the sale of raw milk illegal. Once again we will struggle to find balance between the concerns of those who say ‘there ought to be a law’ to protect the public’s health and those who want the freedom to buy unpasteurized milk.

Citizens across the state will weigh in and we will attempt to find a solution that respects the will of the people – as one man reminded us when he quoted the writings in the Governor’s Conference Room – ‘the will of the people is the law of the land’.