A South Dakota Legislative panel on Tuesday approved proposed state rules covering the production, testing and labeling of raw milk sold in the state, but members of the committee suggested that the state Agriculture Department delay enforcement of the rules so the entire Legislature can discuss the regulations that are adamantly opposed by raw milk producers and their customers.
Rep. Timothy Johns, R-Lead, a member of the committee, said the issue is certain to arise early in the legislative session that opens in January, so it would make sense to delay the rules' effect until the full Legislature re-examines state policy on raw milk.
Agriculture Department officials said they will not decide whether to delay the rules until someone files an official request to do so.
Department officials contend the rules are necessary to ensure the safety of raw milk sold in the state, but raw milk producers and their customers argue the product is already safe and the new rules would impose too many restrictions.
The Agriculture Department has been trying to pass the rules since last spring and has held three hearings on the issue.
Members of the Legislature's Rules Review Committee, which has the final say on state agency rules, said their vote Tuesday does not necessarily indicate approval of the rules' content but merely finds that the department followed proper procedures in adopting them.
The legislative committee rejected the rules in August, asking the department to get more information on how they would financially affect farmers who produce raw milk for sale.
Courtney De La Rosa, the department's lawyer and director of agricultural policy, told lawmakers Tuesday she estimates it would cost farmers 1 cent a bottle to print the required new labels. Farmers would not pay for monthly routine testing of raw milk, but would have to pay for retesting if their milk is found to contain contaminants, she said.
But raw milk producers said they believe the cost of printing the new labels would cost far more than a penny a bottle.
Lila Streff, owner of Black Hills Goat Dairy in Custer, said the cost of retesting milk would impose a financial burden.
"The financial impact of that would put me under, would put me out of business," Streff said.
State Agriculture Secretary Lucas Lentsch said the rules impose reasonable requirements to make sure the milk does not exceed limits for bacteria and other contaminants.
"The notion that we're trying to regulate them out of existence — that could not be further from the truth," Lentsch said.
Raw milk producers and consumers said pasteurization, the process of heating milk to destroy bacteria and protect shelf life, destroys important nutrients.
"I believe I do have the right to consume what I choose and maintain my health," said Carolyn Ness, a Rapid City resident who drinks raw milk.
However, state and federal health officials contend that raw milk carries an increased risk of bacterial contamination that can lead to illness and even death. The sale of raw milk to the public is illegal in some states.
The new regulations set standards for bacteria and other contaminants, require monthly tests, regulate the bottling of milk and require a bottling date on the container. They apply to unpasteurized milk from cows, sheep, goats and other hoofed animals.
An earlier version of the rules would have required a label warning that the raw milk may contain harmful bacteria and presents the greatest risk to pregnant women, infants, children, the elderly and people with lowered resistance to disease.
According to final version of the rules, the label must state: "WARNING: This product has not been pasteurized and may contain harmful bacteria."