Report from Public Health Committee Hearing

The House Public Health Committee heard the raw milk and cottage foods bills on Wednesday, April 20, 2011.

Over the course of the day, we estimate that over 100 people came to the Capitol to fill out witness affirmation forms to support these bills. Between a packed schedule for the Committee hearing and for the full House of Representatives, the raw milk hearing started after 10 pm. Not only did all of our witnesses stay, but the room was filled with people who spent long hours waiting for the hearing to start in order to provide moral support and impress the Committee members with the importance of the issues. Despite the late hour, most of the Committee members were present and clearly paying close attention, as evidenced by their questions.

We had a great line-up of witnesses in support of HB 75, the raw milk bill, including Dr. Mary Traverse, Dr. Mark Shannon, Bob Stryk, Ramy Jisha, Shorty and Rhianna Miller, Tom Hensleee, Susan Simpson, Paul Norris, Christina Peteet, Michelle Ellis, Nancy Falster, and Judith McGeary. The witnesses discussed the low risk associated with raw milk from licensed dairies, the many illnesses linked to pasteurized milk, the range of nutrition and health benefits provided by raw milk, the difference between large conventional dairies and small direct-to-consumer raw dairies, the economics of the dairy industry, and more.

The Department of State Health Services (DSHS) sent two witnesses. Under state law, an agency must be neutral on bills pending before the Legislature, but DSHS’s witnesses made it plain that they view raw milk as dangerous. Two local health departments (City of Garland and Harris County) also sent witnesses to oppose the bill. One of the witnesses made the completely unsupported claim that if the bill is passed, we’ll see more illnesses. To the contrary, FARFA provided data from the CDC showing that there is no pattern of increasing consumption of raw milk leading to increasing rates of foodborne illness.

A doctor representing the Texas Medical Association and the Texas Pediatric Society gave graphic testimony about the various painful illnesses that can result from bacteria “that are found in raw milk.” Misleadingly, the TMA/TPS representative never acknowledged that all of the bacteria she listed are also found in almost every other food. Upon questioning by Chairwoman Kolkhorst, however, the witness did admit that none of these illnesses had actually been linked to raw milk in Texas.

Of course, the Texas Association of Dairymen showed up to oppose the bill. In response to the testimony by one of the raw milk farmers about the extremely limited market that conventional farmers have, the TAD representative pointed out that there are four co-ops in the State of Texas – while carefully not mentioning that two of them are subsidiaries of Dairy Farmers of America, the largest co-op in the country. Does that sound like a competitive market?

Several of the opposition witnesses referenced four cases of illness that have allegedly been linked to a raw milk dairy in northeast Texas. Although the investigation is not complete, the DSHS released the information to the Texas Medical Association, which in turn issued a press release the day of the hearing. Given that the illnesses reportedly occurred between November and March, the timing of the publicity is very questionable. The health officials implied that this outbreak is justification for limiting people’s access to raw milk.

Yet the DSHS testified that there had only been two illnesses linked to raw milk in twenty years before this. Even if these recent illnesses were linked to raw milk, that would mean that there have been only six cases of foodborne illness linked to raw milk in Texas in twenty years. Very few foods can claim that kind of a safety record. All of the opposition witnesses ignored the data on foodborne illness in Texas that show that raw milk has caused far fewer illnesses than even foods like strawberries and chicken soup, not to mention ham salad, turkey, and oysters.

Representatives Jodie Laubenberg and Susan King asked excellent questions throughout the hearing about supporting small business, the health benefits of raw milk (including a comparison to human breast milk), and the risks involved in the current requirement that customers transport their own milk back from the farm.

After the raw milk bill hearing concluded, the Committee heard both HB 1139 and HB 2084 at the same time, two versions of the “Cottage Foods bill.” Representative Eddie Rodriguez opened by explaining that he had filed HB 1139 after meeting with several farmers and local food producers last summer who told him that de-regulating small-scale cottage food production would be a very helpful step for the local food community.

Chairwoman Kolkhorst then laid out her version of a cottage foods bill, HB 2084. The bill has been modified since its initial form. It now would exempt anyone selling under $50,000 of the listed low-risk foods (baked goods, jams, jellies, dried herbs) directly to consumers from all regulation. The committee substitute version of the bill also calls for interim hearings on several issues that affect local foods, specifically: regulatory fees imposed on cheesemakers and other dairy producers; barriers to the use of food stamp benefits at farmers markets; and the application of the agricultural property tax valuation to urban farms, community gardens, and sustainable producers.

FARFA again testified in support of the bills, along with two home bakers and a farmers market organizer. Predictably, the various health departments again opposed any limitation on their authority to regulate.

The award for the best comment of the evening goes to Representative Garnet Coleman. After referring to himself as “a tax and spend and regulate Democrat,” he pointed out that the major foodborne illness outbreaks have all come from the large, industrial food system that is regulated and inspected. He brought up Food Inc. and called for supporting our local food producers to provide an alternative.

Chairwoman Kolkhorst also gave excellent comments, referring to her bill as the “let my people go” bill and reminding the Committee members that they are supposed to be serving the people of Texas, whose support for these local foods bills was made plain by the packed room of witnesses at midnight.

Special thanks to Representatives Flynn, Kolkhorst and Rodriguez for sponsoring these bills. And thanks go to their co-authors as well, particularly Committee members Representatives Coleman and Laubenberg.

You can watch the video of the hearing at www.house.state.tx.us/video-audio/committee-broadcasts/committee-archives/player/?session=82&committee=410&ram=11042011410 (the raw milk hearing starts about 2 hours in, and the cottage foods bills were heard immediately afterward).