October 1, 2011

Vendors fight city ban on raw milk at farmers markets

Farmers push for a rule change after a recent crackdown, but action isn't likely this fall.

By Jason Singer jsinger@pressherald.com
Assistant City Editor / Online

PORTLAND - About a dozen farmers and raw-milk drinkers showed up unexpectedly this week at a meeting of the City Council's Health and Recreation Committee, frustrated by a recent crackdown on people selling raw milk at farmers markets.

Vendors have been selling it for some time, but sales at farmers markets aren't allowed under city code. In the past two weeks, health inspectors have gone to the farmers markets on Wednesdays and Saturdays and asked the three raw-milk vendors at each market to stop selling the unpasteurized milk immediately.

One vendor, Doug Donahue, said it doesn't make sense.

"It's legal throughout the state of Maine to sell raw milk," said Donahue, who owns Balfour Farm and sells his milk at the market held on Wednesdays in Monument Square.

"It's legal at every other farmers market in the state. And it's not even a city ordinance. You can sell raw milk at grocery stores all around Portland. So why not farmers markets? That's what we really have a problem with," Donahue said.

The city code states that "pasteurized milk and milk products" stored at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or colder can be sold at farmers markets, but it does not mention raw milk or raw-milk products.

Pasteurized milk was added to the list of salable products in 2000, said Mary Costigan, one of the city's lawyers. She is still doing research to determine why raw milk wasn't included.

One resident at Tuesday's meeting suggested that raw milk was less popular in 2000, so it may simply have been overlooked.

Costigan said it could have been a liability issue, in case someone got sick from raw milk bought on city property.

Raw milk can harbor microorganisms that pose serious health risks, such as salmonella, E. coli and listeria, according to the federal Food and Drug Administration's website. Supporters argue that it has health benefits beyond those of pasteurized milk, and that they prefer the taste.

At the meeting, several people asked why city health inspectors are suddenly at the markets.

"Those inspections are almost always complaint-driven," said Councilor Dory Waxman, the committee chairwoman.

The inspections prompted farmers to send out emails urging supporters to attend the meeting, said Don McEwan, who said he drinks raw milk.

Because the issue wasn't on the agenda and committee members had time constraints, they chose not to discuss it. The committee, which meets monthly, has already booked its October meeting to discuss creating a weekly crafts market in Monument Square, so the raw-milk issue will be on the Nov. 15 agenda.

That didn't please all of the farmers at the meeting. Donahue asked for a moratorium on the prohibition, so the farmers could keep selling raw milk at the markets this fall.

Costigan said that isn't a possibility. The Health and Recreation Committee and the City Council would have to approve a change first, she said. The council likely won't vote on it before December, and that's only if the committee recommends a change.

Donahue said he sells as many as 60 gallon and half-gallon jugs of raw milk at the market on Wednesdays. He follows state law for storage and uses state-approved labels warning that raw milk isn't pasteurized or homogenized.

McEwan worried that waiting until winter for the city to make a decision would hurt business.

"That is a long time to keep the providers and consumers in limbo," he said.

Staff Writer Jason Singer can be contacted at 791-6437 or at:

jsinger@pressherald.com

 

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