According to the buzz on social media and a few news websites, a shadowy lobbying group controlled by Big Agriculture is trying to convince legislators to ban the sale of raw milk in South Carolina.
It almost goes without saying by now, but don't believe everything you read on the internet.
Here's the scenario presented in a Jan. 25 article on NaturalNews.com: "It has come to our attention that the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), a national non-governmental organization that claims to represent the interests of American farmers, is right now attempting to covertly eliminate the freedom of South Carolina farmers to sell raw milk at the retail level." The article went on to explain that at a special meeting on Jan. 25, the AFBF was going to try to convince a body called the S.C. Dairy Advisory Committee to "implement policies that reflect its own biased views towards raw milk." FITSNews.com, ever the bastion of journalistic integrity in Statehouse reporting, picked the story up and ran an article on Jan. 31 titled "Raw milk ban in S.C.?"
But as it turns out, the S.C. Dairy Advisory Committee is basically toothless. It can't enforce any policies on anyone else, and despite its official-sounding name, it is not a government regulatory agency. In fact, it's a group of dairy farmers within the nonprofit S.C. Farm Bureau, and it doesn't appear to be interested in putting raw-milk farmers out to Pasteur. Here's what really happened: At a mid-January national meeting in Nashville, the AFBF took a vote and decided, according to a news release on the AFBF website, that "only pasteurized milk and milk products should be sold for human consumption." Dale Moore, the AFBF’s executive director of public policy, says the organization isn’t actively lobbying for a national pasteurization law, and South Carolina’s state law is “not an issue we’re seeking to go down there and get in the middle of.” But if a national raw milk ban comes up in Congress, Moore says, “that’s when we would weigh in.”
State Farm Bureaus don't have to go along with everything the national group says, so the S.C. Dairy Advisory Committee — which includes both raw-milk farmers and farmers who sell pasteurized milk to companies like PET and Coburg — met at noon on Jan. 25 to decide whether they agreed with the national organization. (This is the secret back-room meeting alluded to in the NaturalNews article.) They voted not to dissent against the AFBF, and on Tues. Jan. 29, the leadership of the S.C. Farm Bureau took the dairy farmers' advice and said they wouldn't oppose the national position. S.C. Farm Bureau spokesman Reggie Hall notes, "The board of directors added in the vote that they would like for South Carolina to stay out of that argument altogether." So that's what all the fuss was about: A bunch of dairy farmers telling a farmers' advocacy group that they don't disagree with the idea that pasteurization is a good thing.
"Yeah, we're the big bad wolf according to that article," Hall says. Unlike the national Farm Bureau, the S.C. Farm Bureau doesn't rub elbows with Monsanto or Big Ag's other worst offenders. According to the group's tax filings with the IRS, most of its funding comes from member dues and from the profits of S.C. Farm Bureau Insurance. The nonprofit organization's Statehouse lobbying priorities, which this year include fixing rural roads and maintaining farmers' tax exemptions, come up from the state's 47 local farmers' chapters rather, not down from the national organization.
Celeste Albers, a farmer on Wadmalaw Island who sells about 30 gallons of raw milk per week, says she hasn't found any effort to ban raw milk in South Carolina. "What it boils down to is a states' rights issue," Albers says.
It is worth noting that South Carolina is a holdout state when it comes to unpasteurized milk. According to a 2010 analysis by the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, only 10 states allowed the retail sale of raw milk, and South Carolina was the only state in the Southeast to allow it. At the time, 15 other states only allowed farms to sell raw milk directly to consumers.
Raw milk can contain nasty pathogens like E. Coli and Salmonella, and in 2011, the Centers for Disease Control traced three confirmed cases and five probable cases of campylobacteriosis (a bacterial infection causing diarrhea) to raw milk from a dairy in York, S.C. Still, raw-milk advocates praise the product's immunity-boosting enzymes and slightly greater nutritional value, along with its sweet taste. And they'll defend it against all comers real or imaginary, as evidenced by the flurry of e-mails and phone calls that the S.C. Farm Bureau received this week.
"I've often said that if a number of issues I care about had the passion of these people that have responded this week, the world would be a better place," Hall says.