Courtroom loss, political win for Iowa raw milk drinkers?

A U.S. District Court judge in Sioux City dismissed a lawsuit challenging a federal rule banning interstate sales of raw milk. However, the verdict contained a silver lining for Iowans who want to buy and drink this unpasteurized product.  

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration prohibits interstate sales of raw milk. In 2010, the Virginia-based Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund and many of its farmer and consumer members filed a federal lawsuit to overturn that rule, claiming it violates “constitutional rights to travel freely and decide what to feed their families.”

U.S. District Court Judge Mark Bennett dismissed the lawsuit against the FDA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services this week. He said the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that they were injured by the regulations, because the FDA enforces this rule only against producers and distributors, not consumers.

The attorney for the plaintiffs, Garry Davis, declared victory.

“We lost the battle but we won the war. Our case was dismissed, but  now we have F.D.A. on record and we have a judge agreeing with F.D.A. that this regulation is unenforceable, and F.D.A. has no intention of enforcing it against an individual,” according to Davis.

The agency told the judge it is focusing enforcement of the interstate ban on distributors and producers, not individuals who buy the raw milk for their personal use. The suit included two Iowa women, Laurie Donnelly of Sloan and Jennifer Allen of Council Bluffs.

Davis says the federal agency’s statement is a win for Donnelly, Allen, and others who want raw milk but can’t legally buy it in Iowa. “So those people in Iowa can go to Nebraska – where it’s legal to buy and sell raw milk – they can buy raw milk in Nebraska and then go back into Iowa and consume it in Iowa, and they will not be sued by F.D.A.,” Davis explains.

Raw milk sales directly from farms to consumers are legal in most of the states bordering Iowa: Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri, and Illinois. Iowans who live near any of those states can buy unpasteurized milk directly from farmers and bring it back home without threat of federal prosecution.

Up to now, Iowans who wanted to get around our state’s ban on raw milk sales had fewer options. For instance, city dwellers can purchase part of a cow from a farmer and stop by the farm once or twice a week to pick up their share of milk from the jointly-owned cow. But only the most dedicated raw milk enthusiasts will go to those lengths to drink the product.

Organic dairy farmer Francis Thicke, who was a candidate for Iowa secretary of agriculture in 2010, is one of the leading advocates for legalizing raw milk sales. He says changing the law would be an “economic development” policy for rural Iowa and would lower the barriers for Iowans who want to get into dairy farming but can’t afford very expensive pasteurization equipment.

Corporate agriculture groups, in particular the Iowa Dairy Foods Association, have lobbied against raw milk bills the last few legislative sessions. Other organizations opposing this legislation include the Iowa Department of Agriculture, Iowa Board of Regents, the Iowa Retail Federation, the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, the Iowa Environmental Health Association, the Iowa State Association of Counties, the Iowa Public Health Association, the Iowa Veterinary Medical Association, the Iowa Medical Society, the Iowa Academy of Family Physicians, and the Iowa chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.  

A bill to legalize raw milk sales by dairy farm operators directly to consumers made it through an Iowa House Judiciary Committee subcommittee in February, but the following week the bill was pulled from the full House Judiciary Committee schedule. A Facebook post by the Iowa Raw Milk Alliance explained the situation:

Our bill was pulled from the Judiciary Committee Calendar, by [GOP] Representative Jason Schultz, due to a lack of sure yes votes to pass the bill out of committee. There is much disappointment about this after giving the effort that was displayed by all of you over the last few weeks.

In the end, this was a tactical decision. It is possible that we might have run the bill and received enough votes to pass from committee. But unless we also got 51+ votes on the House Floor, Representative Schultz felt our efforts in future years to get this bill passed, would have been damaged by forcing it in committee today. In the end, we want to win this fight by having our bill signed into law. Leadership of both parties has allowed us to make our case and did not stand in the way of our efforts. It is individual legislators that need to be convinced or replaced.

This issue splits both caucuses. It is very difficult to move any bill where one party or the other is not firmly behind the concept. Our goal is to have a majority of both parties behind our efforts.

Now that Iowans have the all-clear to drive over the border to buy raw milk from farmers in other states, the consumers’ political argument should be stronger moving forward. Why not capture more of that economic activity inside Iowa? Why not let Iowans decide for themselves whether the potential health benefits of drinking unpasteurized milk outweigh the risks?

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

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  • Why did ISU faculty testify against the Iowa raw milk bill?

    Last week I spoke to a class of ISU students on a topic unrelated to raw milk, and afterwards a student came up to tell me that after the legislative subcommittee hearing on raw milk last month he went to the office of Dr. James Roth, ISU veterinarian, to ask him why he testified against the raw milk bill.  Dr. Roth told the student that he was asked by the ISU President’s office — on behalf of the Board of Regents — to testify against the raw milk bill.

    I was a bit flabbergasted to hear that.  I then emailed the other ISU faculty member, Dr. Stephanie Clark, who testified against the raw milk bill and asked her if someone had asked her to testify.  She replied that she had been “invited” to testify by Mark Truesdell of the Iowa Dairy Association and by Ann McCarthy of the ISU President’s office.

    I am confused. Does the Board of Regents have the authority to direct ISU faculty members to ride shotgun on their pet political agendas that are unrelated to Regents’ business? Further, was this a Board of Regents decision (I was not able to find anything to that effect in their minutes) or was this a personal directive of one of the Regents board members (such as the President of the Farm Bureau, who serves on the Regents board)?

    Can anyone help me out here?