Montana sees 10 cases of raw milk illness in past two years

Raw Milk Institute: Montana’s new law provided all freedom, no education

By: - April 18, 2022 5:10 pm

Milk cow (Photo via Ehrecke via Pixabay | Public Domain).

An investigation by the Daily Montanan has found that since 2020, there have been 10 confirmed cases of illness in Montana due to raw milk, with three being traced to a Park County dairy late in 2021.

The law that allows unregulated, unfettered food production is the product of several pieces of legislation, including a 2021 bill that radically redefined the scope and role of the state’s health department.

When Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, presented the Montana Local Food Choice Act, Senate Bill 199, he told lawmakers that he wanted to get government out of the way so that food producers could sell their products, including raw milk, directly to consumers.

While SB199 covered almost any product sold directly to consumers within the state except for meat, much of the debate in the 2021 session centered around raw milk – milk that is unpasteurized. Hertz claimed there was a thriving black market so robust that he bet he could find a bottle or jug of it for sale nearby the Capitol in just a matter of hours.

While the state’s Department of Public Health and Human Services has continued to track the illness, the legislation has left the agency with no power to correct unsanitary conditions or even warn consumers about specific threats. It wasn’t clear if any of the cases of illness led to long-term health consequences.

Even leaders within in the raw milk community at large said that other states have already modeled how to safely handle raw milk, but Montana’s changes were an overreaction to perceived government overreach.

Raw milk illness by county

These are the reports of illness due to raw milk in Montana since 2020:
Petroleum County (April 2020)
Yellowstone County (June 2020)
Lewis and Clark County (May 2021)
Park County (May, October 2021)
Gallatin County (June 2021)
Missoula County (June 2021)
Flathead County (September 2021)
Mineral County (August 2021)
Sanders County (November 2021)

According to information obtained through a public records request, since 2020, there have been 10 cases of confirmed illness in Montana due to raw milk. Three of those cases were linked back to 406 Dairy in Park County. In that case, a team from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, which included a sanitarian and an epidemiologist, were able to go to the dairy, collect samples, but were only allowed to make recommendations, none of which have the force of the law.

Three other cases reported and tracked by the state health department are from an unknown source, meaning that the residents who were made ill by the raw milk could not remember or did not know where the raw milk was from. The other four cases were a result of drinking raw milk from their own animals, or from a friend’s or family’s animal, said DPHHS spokesperson Jon Ebelt.

In the case of the 406 Dairy, the operators were so concerned with the reports of illness coming from the dairy, the owner and operator called in the Raw Milk Institute, based in California, and have been engaged in a months-long process to upgrade equipment and the facilities. Institute President Mark Mcafee, who is a dairy farmer himself, said the dairy’s problems were exactly what can happen when laws are passed in the name of freedom without any education.

Hertz, who sponsored the bill, did not return requests for comment via phone or email when contacted by the Daily Montanan.

“When SB199 passed in May 2021, it was a huge and frustrating overreaction to decades-long suppression against raw milk,” said Mcafee. “It was all freedom and no education or instructions. The outcome was totally predictable.”

He said the desire to purchase raw milk is understandable, but there’s a misconception that raw milk is a product straight out of the Victorian-era. He said that as Montana law currently stands, it’s even worse: Not only are there no rules, but it hamstrings the state from implementing some reasonable safety precautions, which he said raw milk producers generally support.

“SB199 provides no standards. This put raw milk producers on Ignorance Island with all their freedom but no knowledge of the different requirements and standards used to produce raw milk for human consumption,” Mcafee said.

He said that was the case at 406 Dairy. He helped install new testing equipment and different treatment standards, including how to correctly clean stainless steel equipment. Within 48 hours of the set-up, the results of the lab tests showed marked improvement.

“I explained the steps from grass to glass, and she and her team immediately made the changes,” Mcafee said, referring to the Dairy in Park County.

However, he said that raw milk producers are in even more of a bind because when he contacted the state department of health, he learned that SB199 prohibited any government involvement or interference. That means that even if raw milk producers want education or assistance, any help from the government could be construed as interference, something the law doesn’t allow.

“When we mess up, we say it. And, in (406 Dairy’s case), she didn’t know and she had no clue. She messed up,” Mcafee said. “If you want raw milk to be safe, there’s a way for it to be safe. Absolutely raw milk can be dangerous if it’s not done correctly, but there’s this scare that we’re somehow doing it the same way we did when it was the 1880s. There were no standards.”

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.