Texas dairies ask the Legislature to help keep milk safe

Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre

When Texans reach for a gallon of milk on the grocery shelf, they probably don’t wonder if it’s safe to drink — and with good reason. Pasteurized milk and other dairy products purchased in stores rarely pose danger of sickness from harmful bacteria.

Pasteurization may have been invented 154 years ago, but it’s still the best and only way to kill potential disease-causing bacteria in milk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is even more effusive: “Most public health professionals and health care providers consider pasteurization one of public health’s most effective food safety interventions ever!”

Pasteurization is a no-brainer to Texas dairy farmers. Most of us only feed our families pasteurized milk, even though we have an abundant supply of milk straight from the cow on our farms.

Unfortunately, some Texas lawmakers don’t agree. Since 2011, bills have been filed every legislative session to expand the sale of unpasteurized — or raw — milk in the state. We anticipate another round in 2019. While the session is months away, the Texas Association of Dairymen, which represents dairy farmers at the state Capitol, believes that National Dairy Month is a good time to restate its opposition to any proposal that puts Texas milk drinkers at risk.

Currently, Texans can buy raw/unpasteurized milk only from the farms where it is produced. It cannot be sold at farmers markets or in stores, and we hope to keep it that way. By the time you buy milk at the grocery store, it has been tested numerous times, transported at a specific temperature and undergone numerous food safety checks. You can be confident you’re buying a safe product.

That’s not the case with raw milk. Not all raw milk dairies are licensed, although it is required, with the Texas Department of State Health Services. Licensed raw milk dairies are supposed to be inspected by the state twice every six months, and their milk tested for bacteria every six weeks. However, the law allows a buyer to leave the farm with untested milk. There’s no assurance that milk is kept at a safe temperature between farm and home — and some buyers report traveling hundreds of miles to a raw milk dairy.

The scientific evidence is clear and sound — and there’s a mountain of it. Raw milk is a serious health risk, especially for children. It does not prevent or cure disease or illness, nor does it offer any health benefits.

Currently, states regulate raw milk sales, and they run the gamut from outright banning its sale to allowing sales in retail stores. Expanding raw milk sales — especially in a state as big as Texas — would mean more illness, or worse.

In April 2011 — the same day a Texas House committee was debating a bill to expand raw milk sales — three children and one adult were hospitalized with salmonella after drinking raw milk from a Plano dairy. Thankfully, that bill died in committee.

More recently, last September, illnesses in at least seven states were traced to Brucella bacteria found in raw milk that came from a North Texas dairy.

When the Texas Legislature returns in January, it will have numerous pressing issues to debate. Expanding raw milk sales shouldn’t be one of them. In this case, the best way to keep milk-drinking Texans safe is to do nothing.

The Texas Association of Dairymen has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

David Volleman

Dairy farmer and chairman, Texas Association of Dairymen