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July 30, 2014

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Food and Drink:

Tired of risking illegal raw milk transactions, band of supporters seeks to change law

They had arrived to get their goods.

Parked in the front yard of a nondescript Las Vegas home at noon on a recent August day, a guy with a clipboard dispensed the product from the back of a minivan. Money changed hands, and customers loaded jugs of milk, cream and cottage cheese into coolers.

TO DRINK OR NOT TO DRINK

Raw Milk Supporters Say:

... it cures asthma

... it tastes better

... it can be produced safely

Raw Milk Opponents Say:

... it can cause food borne illnesses

... youth and the elderly are at higher risk of food borne illnesses

... pasteurizing milk reduces such risk

Then they sped away as others arrived to pick up their haul. The brisk, unassuming transactions in broad daylight belied the illegality of the operation.

The crime: distributing unpasteurized dairy in interstate commerce, or, in other words, selling raw dairy products.

The fact that the sale of raw milk is illegal in Clark County may never have crossed the minds of some people, but it has created a problem for legions of raw milk consumers. They have reacted by creating a homespun black market in which they import raw dairy products from Utah, Arizona or California, where raw dairy is legal.

Brett Ottolenghi, 28, has been crusading for years to make raw milk easier to get in Nevada. Now the Las Vegas small-business owner turned citizen lobbyist has set his sights on the Clark County Commission this year. And he wants one thing.

“I’m asking them to create a raw dairy commission,” he said.

In the labyrinthine world of a government that mandates state boards for things such as oriental medicine and cosmetology, a county raw dairy commission is the key to legalizing raw dairy for consumers who want it here.

“I grew up on a family farm drinking unpasteurized (raw) milk and have continued to drink it whenever I have had legal access to it throughout my life,” said Emily McFarling, a lawyer in Las Vegas who said she doesn’t purchase it illegally in Clark County. “I really hope that the appropriate government entities will take the necessary steps to ensure that consumers of raw milk are able to legally obtain it.”

Currently, people get busted for this kind of illicit business. Law enforcement officers have seized raw dairy crossing Nevada state lines and destroyed it like it’s Prohibition-era alcohol.

“There have been cases in Nevada where we have found people importing raw milk and told them to cease and desist and impounded the raw milk at the time,” said Lynn Hettrick, former director of the Nevada Dairy Commission.

Nevada’s raw dairy drinkers say they don’t want to be criminals. Decriminalize raw milk and bring on the regulation and the bureaucracy, they say.

Legislators this year agreed. Fifty-seven of Nevada’s 63 legislators voted to allow raw milk sales in all of Nevada’s counties.

Click to enlarge photo

Other states have legalized raw milk production and retail sales. Brett Ottolenghi is working to make Nevada next.

But Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed the bill. He did it largely because of one man who died 128 years ago: Louis Pasteur, the scientist who first heated milk to 165 degrees and quickly cooled it to kill bacteria in dairy products.

Today, most dairy products are pasteurized.

Raw dairy, the stuff people drank for centuries, can now be a bacteria-ridden monster in the post-Pasteur world.

Here’s what the federal government tells you about raw milk: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says “raw milk can … kill you.” The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services notes: "it’s not worth the risk" of drinking raw milk. And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns of "the dangers of raw milk" while urging Americans to “protect your families” with pasteurized milk.

So, why do people go out of their way to get a product that could kill them?

For the same reason people go to the grocery store to get raw vegetables or go to a sushi restaurant to eat raw fish: It tastes good and has a nutritional value, raw dairy boosters say.

In addition, they say it has disease-fighting properties and tastes richer or more buttery than pasteurized milk.

“Raw milk stabilizes the mast cells, reduces histamines, makes asthma go away, makes ear infections go away and makes the immune system stronger,” Mark McAfee, CEO and founder of Organic Pastures Dairy Co., LLC, a raw milk dairy in Fresno, Calif., said during testimony to the Nevada Legislature earlier this year.

The government’s line of argument takes a different course: Raw milk is yucky and unhealthy.

“You have to consider where raw milk comes from, and it’s a dairy cow that is out in a lot that is full of manure, feces and dirt and all kinds of things that are known to have pathogens,” Hettrick said.

Nobody wants to drink manure milk or feces-infused dairy, Ottolenghi said.

Raw milk businesses should keep their dairies exceptionally clean because raw milk consumers demand food safety standards just like any other consumer, he said.

Such conflicting arguments are about to come before Clark County commissioners such as Steve Sisolak.

“I remember in school reading about Louis Pasteur and how he invented pasteurization, and it never dawned on me that you would drink raw (milk),” he said. “I am ignorant on the subject.”

Officials such as Sisolak have been reading up on raw milk and already have spoken to Ottolenghi and Assemblyman Paul Aizley, D-Las Vegas, the sponsor of the raw milk bill Sandoval vetoed.

Sisolak is in this position because, as Aizley says, “Nevada’s laws are weird.”

Nevada’s laws say that a county commission must establish a county milk commission to regulate the production and distribution of raw milk.

The county commission must appoint a doctor, a veterinarian and a member of the public to serve on the dairy board.

The process seemed so Kafkaesque that state agriculture officials opposed to the consumption of raw dairy thought nobody would ever go through the bureaucratic process to legally drink it.

“Candidly, we didn't think any county was likely to ever approve a county (dairy) commission,” Hettrick told the state dairy commission in May. “But Nye (County) did. They have complied with all the laws.”

Ottolenghi made the Nye County raw dairy commission happen last year. He lobbied the county commission, found the necessary veterinarian and doctor, and established the county dairy board.

Although the county is small, there’s demand for raw dairy in Nye County.

Even the state assemblyman who lives in Nye County said he’d tried it.

“I got some raw milk, I drank it, and I loved it,” Assemblyman James Oscarson, R-Pahrump, said during legislative testimony.

But state law precluded Ottolenghi from opening a farm and taking legal raw dairy produced in Nye County and distributing it in the larger market in Clark County.

Rather than giving up, he decided to try to change state law. He partnered with Aizley to sponsor Assembly Bill 209 and spent so much time lobbying the Legislature this year that he said his employees wondered whether he was neglecting his food vending business.

He found a sympathetic ally in Aizley, who worked to pass the bill.

“The main issue is that there are people who are drinking raw milk now,” Aizley said, noting that he’s lactose-intolerant and hasn’t tried raw milk. “Being a city boy, I was amazed to find out how much ... people are drinking raw milk. Let’s make it as safe as possible. Nevada is making people who want raw milk do illegal things. It’s crazy.”

Click to enlarge photo

Supporters of raw milk toast with empty glasses during a "picnic" at Sunset Park Thursday, August 29, 2013. From left are: Patricia Aiken, Emily McFarling, Caroline Anaya, and Juliana Whitney. The Nevada legislature passed a bill that would have allowed raw milk produced in Nye County to be distributed statewide but Governor Brian Sandoval vetoed the bill.

But now that Sandoval has vetoed the bill, Ottolenghi said he has to take the battle to the Clark County Commission so that the majority of the state’s population will have legal access to raw milk.

Already, Sisolak is getting an education in dairy politics from raw and pasteurized milk advocates.

“People that are interested in it are very passionate on one side or the other,” he said. “Both sides are passionate and feel very strongly about it and think they’re right.”

Ottolenghi might have some unexpected allies in this fight: raw milk Republicans. Former presidential candidate Ron Paul and his son, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., have made unfettered access to raw milk an issue of economic liberty.

The elder Paul even addressed raw milk at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., last year.

In Las Vegas, Paul supporters such as Cindy Lake count themselves among the raw milk drinkers and supporters.

“That was the issue that brought me to Ron Paul in the first place,” said Lake, a former Clark County Republican Party chairwoman. “In 2007, he was in a debate. In that debate he actually said, ‘I think you have a right to drink raw milk.’ ... The next day I was out at his (campaign) office.”

Lake said she finds it odd that she can buy health-harming cigarettes at the supermarket but doesn’t have the freedom to legally drink raw milk in Clark County.

Although Aizley and Ottolenghi have talked to county commissioners about supporting raw milk access, Clark County Commissioner Tom Collins says he has also heard from county health department officials who have raised safety concerns.

Collins, a rancher who spoke to the Sun while driving cows to California, said he’s not opposed to raw milk.

“Our kids drank goat’s milk for years,” he said. “I had an uncle who had a cow who milked it twice a day, and when I was a boy I drank whole (raw) milk.”

But he and Sisolak both said they fear somebody could get sick.

“I don’t want to see tourists not come here for fear that our milk ain’t good,” Collins said.

Sisolak said he’s sympathetic with Ottolenghi and called him a nice guy with good intentions.

Legalizing distribution in Clark County could lead to a decrease in illegal raw milk commerce over state lines, a crime that federal authorities prosecute.

Last year, for example, the U.S. Department of Justice ruled against a Pennsylvania man, noting that his “subterfuge” cow-sharing scheme had enabled the illegal transfer of raw dairy across state lines.

A Clark County raw dairy board that allowed the sale of raw dairy would mean Nevadans could avoid prosecution by legally buying raw dairy, Ottolenghi said

Standing in his shop one day, Ottolenghi said he hoped he could persuade the Clark County commissioners just as he persuaded Nye County commissioners and dozens of state legislators to vote for raw dairy.

But the veto has weighed on his mind.

Maybe he’d had enough.

He mused aloud that if he couldn’t gain the approval of the Clark County Commission, he’d walk away from his advocacy for raw milk.

Pausing for just a moment, he smiled.

No, he wouldn’t give up, he said.

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