Raw milk consumers oppose new dairy standards set to take effect next month in California that they say could outlaw some of their preferred products.
The new law doesn't create an outright ban on raw milk but producers believe it could dry up supplies by setting new bacteria limits they say are difficult to meet.
"There's quite a ruckus right now," said Mark McAfee, founder of Fresno-based Organic Pastures Dairy Co., the larger of two raw milk producers in California. "This is a huge issue and it goes directly to consumer choice. Consumers are fed up with the government being in their kitchens and they want to be able to make their independent choices about food they want to eat."
State officials, on the other hand, say producers should be able to meet the standards, which they maintain are necessary for consumer safety.
The new standard, part of AB 1735, takes effect in January, setting a limit of no more than 10 coliforms per milliliter.
Coliforms are a group of bacteria commonly found in the environment, most of which do not cause disease. Pasteurization, in which milk is heated, kills many bacteria but in raw milk they're still alive.
"We found that coliform count is indicative of a healthy and clean and wholesome production process for raw milk," said Steve Lyle, spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
But raw milk producers say their product is already tested for dangerous bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella. They contend that the presence of other coliforms in their milk is simply part of what makes their product unique and in their view, more healthful, by promoting a stronger immune system.
"There's a bacteria paranoia in our country which is just out of control," McAfee said.
Raw milk producers and consumers say they weren't told about the change until after the new law passed quietly this year.
Other states already have adopted the 10-coliform standard, and supporters of the stricter standards say it won't necessarily spell trouble for the raw milk industry.
"Raw milk is legal in California and continues to be legal in California," said Lyle, adding that testing showed that raw milk producers can meet the new standard.
The 10-coliform limit can be reached when milk is tested in bulk tanks, McAfee said, but it's hard to get much below 15 in the bottle because the process breaks up clumps of coliforms, producing a higher count.