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Lawmakers grapple with raw milk regulations, public health concerns

SALT LAKE CITY — Free enterprise, safeguarding public health and ensuring private property rights collided in what could have been a simple discussion over raw milk and who can sell it.

Ultimately, the contentious fight was tabled because the inherent issues that arise from what happens with a cow and the people who "purchase" an interest to sell or distribute the raw milk smacks at deeply rooted traditions.

The problem is this: A person who owns a cow can distribute all of its products, but not the milk.

Supporters of revising a law say that it should be relaxed so they can enjoy in the spoils of the cow and enter into small co-operatives that help small producers.

Larger dairy producers worry about the ramifications if people get sick and the entire industry suffers.

HB104, sponsored by Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Santaquin, seeks to remove certain prohibitions under the Utah Dairy Act when it comes to cow-sharing, or specifically the sharing of raw or unpasteurized milk from a hooved animal.

Under the provision, people could be involved in a "cow-sharing" enterprise in which multiple owners bought into an arrangement in which the milk was distributed.

Health department officials say there is a reason for such a law.

The prohibition has been on the books since 2007 to guard against public outbreaks of illnesses associated with the consumption of raw or unpasteurized milk.

Last year, there were at least 45 cases of Campylobacter infection documented in people who said they consumed raw milk that came from the Ropelato Dairy in Weber County. Cases were reported in consumers from Salt Lake County north, affecting people ranging in age from 2 to 74.

The Utah Department of Agriculture, as well as the Utah Department of Health, warns that raw milk from animals can contain dangerous bacteria such as Campylobacter, Salmonella, Listeria, and E. coli, which are responsible for causing foodborne illness. Other products that contain raw milk, such as cream or queso fresco, can also cause foodborne illness.

The illness is a bacterial infection that causes diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever, headache, nausea and vomiting. Illness can last for up to a week or more and can be serious, especially for young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those who have weakened or compromised immune systems.

Since 2009, there have been 14 documented outbreaks of Campylobacter infection associated with raw milk consumption in Utah, with more than 200 people becoming ill.

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