GARDEN CITY, Kansas — Wearing sweaters, small kids (of the goat variety) went springing over hay-lined pens in the Good Karma Micro-Dairy barn in Russell County. Here, Erin and Doug Renard milk goats and cows and make raw cheese, Greek yogurt, butter and gelato.
“As you noticed when you came here, there's no signs,” Erin Renard said. “One of the reasons there's no signs is expense. But the other reason was we couldn't even put 'raw milk' on the sign. Now we can.”
Prior to November, the Renards and other Kansas raw milk producers could advertise their products with only a sign on the farm — a 1967 law outlawed raw milk advertising otherwise. That changed when the Kansas Department of Agriculture settled a lawsuit with Mark and Coraleen Bunner, the owners of Shepherd’s Gate Dairy.
In Kansas, raw milk products — which aren’t inspected or pasteurized — still can’t be sold in stores. And while the agriculture department plans to propose legislation in 2020 to remove the advertising ban from state law, it won’t require ads to have warnings about the unregulated dairy products.
So, some raw dairies say that the key to preventing illness is for consumers to visit farms and do their research before drinking unpasteurized milk.
Raw milk’s reach
There are approximately 260 licensed dairies in Kansas, meaning they’re regulated.
When it comes to raw dairies, Kansas has about 45 producers, and is one of 17 states that allow direct raw milk sales from farms to consumers. Thirteen of those states allow raw milk to be sold in stores.
Raw milk comes from goats, cows or sheep and is sold without pasteurization — a process that heats milk and kills bad bacteria without changing the nutritional content. But advocates say raw milk is more nutritious, can cure lactose intolerance and treat asthma and allergies.
The Food and Drug Administration, however, has debunked a host of raw milk claims. And for decades, the FDA has warned consumers about the dangers of raw milk. It may contain bacteria like E. coli, listeria and salmonella. If pregnant women consume raw milk products with listeria in it, it can cause a miscarriage or even death of the newborn — even if the expectant mother never gets sick.
Plus, illnesses from bacteria in raw milk can be more dangerous for adults over 65, children under 5 and people with compromised immune systems.
Past outbreaks in Kansas from raw milk have sickened dozens of people, said Daniel Neises, an epidemiologist with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. His agency stands behind studies and evidence they saw during past outbreaks.
“Some ... bacteria can cause severe illness with long-term consequences like hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can cause kidney failure, and Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can result in paralysis,” he said.
Third-generation farmer TeCoa Seibert is from Chapman, Kansas, and has had a goat herd for 35 years. She said she’s never gotten sick from consuming raw milk. But because it isn’t inspected in Kansas, she understands the potential health risks posed by sick animals and unsanitary milking conditions.
“Does the animal have a shiny coat? Are there any abscesses? Does the animal have a snotty nose?” she said. “Most of the people coming in to pick up milk from me would have no clue what a healthy animal or a clean farm is supposed to look like.”
Now that any raw milk producer can advertise, Seibert is worried. On one hand, she said advertising connects the consumer directly to the farm, so people can see the origin of the food.
“It's what the farmers want — they want people to come back to the farm and have a relationship with their food,” Seibert said.
But more advertising could open the door for unsanitary farms, she said.
“But without any inspection, without any kind of regulation … without understanding what our waste-handling facilities are or any of that, now you start getting a complication,” Seibert said, adding that she’s worried there might be “an increase in the number of people exposed to harmful diseases.”
The old law banning advertising of raw milk off of a farm was unconstitutional and violated free speech, said Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt.
“There's really not a logical connection between the advertising restriction and the government interest that's in play,” he said in November. “So, you know, it's pretty clear that on its face the advertising restriction would have fallen as we continued to contest the case.”
The Kansas Legislature must approve the bill that’s being drawn up by the Kansas Department of Agriculture in order to reflect the changes of the settlement. In the bill, the agency will push for labels on the advertisements, so it’s clear the product includes raw milk.
“For example, printed, written, or visual forms of advertisement should clearly state that such milk or milk products are raw,” said Jeff Jones, program manager for the KDA’s Dairy and Feed Safety Program. “In addition, containers of any unpasteurized milk offered for sale should be clearly labeled as ungraded raw milk.”
Neises, with the state’s health department, said the ads should have a warning. He said more advertising could lead to more widespread consumption of raw milk.
“If raw milk is being sold, it should be clear to the consumer that consuming that unpasteurized milk increases the risk of illness,” Neises said.
But Jones said his agency won’t seek a mandated warning label.
“I think that's where the people, you know, have to make that choice,” Jones said.
Raw dairy owners say consumers should do their due diligence. Erin Renard said they should research and ask several questions of the producers before purchasing raw milk.
“Do you have your milk tested? What are your methods? Can I watch you milk? ... Have you ever had any illness?” she said, adding, “we haven't.”
And as for some raw milk producers’ initial concerns that the state would try to completely rewrite the law to ban the sale of raw milk, Jones said that is not the case.
“Our intent is not to ban the sale of raw milk,” he said, “but to propose additional advertisement labeling requirements for public awareness.”
Corinne Boyer covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @corinne_boyer or ror email cboyer (at) hppr (dot) org.
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