A lawmaker's push to increase Texans' access to raw milk stirred controversy on Tuesday, as dairy farmers, doctors and consumer advocates gathered at the Capitol to debate the merits of unpasteurized milk.
House Bill 91 by state Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, would allow licensed farmers to sell raw milk at farmers' markers and through direct delivery to consumers. The proposed legislation would not allow the sale of raw milk in supermarkets. While raw milk is currently legal in Texas, it can only be sold at farms.
Local farm advocates and Republican lawmakers have teamed up to push for raw milk, underscoring the health benefits of unprocessed dairy products while lobbying for increased market access for small dairy farms across the state. Opponents of the bill, including pediatricians, worry that deregulating unpasteurized milk in Texas could set a dangerous precedent and lead to more foodborne illnesses.
"Any opposition to this bill is based upon general fears that have no basis in fact," said Flynn, speaking to the House Committee on Public Health. The bill would remove unnecessary economic barriers for farmers operating across state, he said, adding that this was particularly important for his constituents in Hopkins County, which has officially been declared the the dairy capital of Texas.
Currently, the sale of raw or unpasteurized milk is legal in at least 30 states, including Texas, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The organization has joined other medical associations and the Food and Drug Association in calling for a ban on the sale of raw or unpasteurized milk products.
"Any food carries a risk," said Judith McGeary, executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, a national group that advocates for independent farmers. "We estimate that about three-quarters of a million Texans consume raw milk from farmers, and we value the safety in that relationship."
The bill would simply allow farmers to come to consumers, she added, rather than the other way around.
But for many testifying before the committee, these benefits do not outweigh what they believe to be well-documented health risks.
"Pasteurization is one of the most effective public health practices put into place in the United States," said Lisa Swanson, a pediatrician from Mesquite, speaking on behalf of the Texas Pediatric Society. "The more raw milk you sell, given that it has a higher bacterial content, you will inevitably see more foodborne illness as a result."
Swanson pointed to the recent decision by Blue Bell Creameries to recall all of its products after it discovered contamination by listeria, a bacteria that can be found in soil, water and raw milk. Health officials have reported three people dead and another five people who have fallen ill as a result of the contamination.
While Blue Bell Creameries was not selling raw milk or unprocessed dairy products, many people testifying before the committee pointed to the contamination as evidence that food systems remain vulnerable.
"Blue Bell makes the point," said Swanson. "That is a well-run dairy, with all the safety measures in place, and they still had an outbreak. We can recall products, but we can't bring back the people that died as a result of this contamination."
An identical bill introduced by Flynn last session never made it to the House floor for a vote. On Tuesday, House Bill 91 was left pending.