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The Raw Milk Fight Has Gone from Fringe to Mainstream

Regulators are trying to crack down on the East coast and it is setting off a firestorm of opposition.

The movement to fight off the federal and state campaigns against raw milk over the past three years has been viewed by the mainstream media as pretty much a fringe thing. A bunch of crazy farmers who refuse to send their milk for pasteurization, and even crazier consumers, who insist on supposedly endangering their health with the unprocessed milk.

The battle has raged mostly in the West and Midwest. In California, movie stars like Martin Sheen joined demonstrations with bad-boy raw dairy farmer Mark McAfee, who runs the largest raw dairy in the country, during 2008 in a vain effort to pass legislation that would have loosened regulatory restrictions on raw milk. Over the last six months, in Wisconsin, a growing citizen movement on behalf of raw milk has led to passage of legislation that would reverse the state's long-standing prohibition on raw milk sales, and allow consumers to buy it from the farm. The governor has indicated publicly that he'll sign it, but in the charged atmosphere over this issue, anything is possible.

But now that regulators are moving to stem the flow of raw milk in the East, affecting the supplies of Boston lawyers, business owners, and health professionals, as well as even Washington bureaucrats, the situation is moving from fringe to mainstream.

The trigger has been a seemingly small but arbitrary decision by a Massachusetts regulator to restrict consumer access to milk. Unlike Wisconsin, which never officially sanctioned raw milk sales, Massachusetts has long allowed sales from dairy farms, and delivery to consumers by any of a half dozen or more buying clubs.

Everything was working fine in Massachusetts -- more dairy farmers producing ever more raw milk and in the process creating a revival for the state's moribund dairy industry. No illnesses in over a decade.

The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources seemed to be doing its job of supporting state agriculture by encouraging raw-milk-producing dairy farmers rather than harassing them, like the regulators do in New York state. Late last year, MDAR publicly supported a suburban Boston dairy farmer in his fight with state and local public health authorities and helped him gain approval to sell raw milk from his dairy.

But then something happened early this year to change MDAR's approach. The agency sent cease-and-desist letters to four buying clubs that had been quietly and efficiently delivering raw milk to consumers who didn't want to burn the gasoline or were unable because they don't have cars or even are disabled, to travel the hour or two hours to a dairy farm in central Massachusetts and pick up their milk. (Buying clubs are private businesses that deliver milk from raw dairies on a contractual basis for consumers.) The letters weren't well received by the owners of the buying clubs, and they began mobilizing support from their customers and legislators to challenge MDAR. They argued that Massachusetts laws and regulations don't specifically prohibit the buying clubs, making the cease-and-desist letters so much paper.

MDAR seems to have agreed, because two weeks ago, it proposed a new regulation to explicitly prohibit the buying clubs. The regulation would make Massachusetts the first state in the country to explicitly ban raw milk buying clubs.

In advance of a hearing May 10 on the proposed regulation, a Massachusetts legislator friendly with Soares set up a meeting on Monday for the regulator to discuss with a few consumers his reasons for going after the buying clubs.

Surprise -- 15 consumers and farmers showed up for the meeting, and started peppering the startled Soares with questions about why he was taking an action that will inevitably reduce consumers' access to raw milk, and quite possibly put at least a few of the more than twenty dairy farms selling raw milk out of business.

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