CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A bill that would allow co-owners of cattle to consume raw milk produced by that herd is one step closer to passing the House of Delegates.
House Agriculture Committee members on Wednesday debated House Bill 4273, one of two bills on the agenda relating to raw milk. However, the meeting ended before discussion could turn to House Bill 4274, which would allow the sale of raw milk.
Officials representing the state Department of Agriculture and Bureau for Public Health outlined their concerns about the consumption of raw milk.
"By law and by rule in the public health sphere, this activity is currently illegal," said Ann Goldberg, director of public health relations for the Bureau for Public Health.
She said raw milk sales have been barred for decades because of the potential health risks of consuming it.
"Those rules and laws have been in effect now for many years," she said.
Delegate Nancy Guthrie, D-Kanawha, said there seems to be a disconnect between the stances the Bureau for Public Health and Department of Agriculture take on the issue. Chris Ferro, chief of staff for the Department of Agriculture, said the department is taking a neutral stance.
He said if his department comes out in support of the sale of raw milk, it could cause confusion.
"Their prohibition addresses this co-ownership," Ferro said, referring to the Bureau for Public Health.
"It's in the health section of law. It puts us in a straddling situation where the health department is regulating Grade A milk, milk consumed by humans .<!p>.<!p>. We're regulating the sale of raw milk. It could create some tension between the two agencies as to who has primacy."
The bill the committee approved Wednesday allows what are called "herdshares."
Delegate John Overington, R-Berkeley, said herdshares allow interested parties to work out an arrangement to take care of and maintain the cattle and consume the milk that cow produces.
Seven states allow similar hershares, and Ferro said the co-owners of the cow likely would have to enter some formal agreement that would be kept on file.
Sales to anyone not part of the herdshares would remain illegal.
Other states recently have passed legislation allowing the sale of raw milk, leading Guthrie to ask if there was any new evidence to suggest it is safe.
"Our duty is to protect public health and there is no new evidence to show us raw milk is safe for public health," Goldberg said.
Advocates for raw milk say they should get to choose what they consume. The group West Virginia Alliance for Raw Milk has been advocating for the House bills and another making its way through the Senate.
Dairy farmer Rebecca Whetsell, a member of the group, said it's an issue of free choice.
"I think what aggravates me the most about this raw milk issue is that no one is forcing anyone to buy raw milk," she said. "It is a choice -- one that has been taken away from us."
Whetsell's family owns a dairy goat farm in north central West Virginia, and she said people in her community are interested in buying milk from her goats. But current law won't allow that.
"I am willing to have my goats tested and will follow guidelines that will be placed," she said. "It would change our lives if we could sell our milk."
A motion was made to waive a reference that would send the bill to the House Health Committee. Despite an objection, the motion carried. However, the chairman of the Health Committee, Delegate Don Perdue, has to agree to the motion to dispense with the second committee reference.
If he does agree, the bill will go to the House floor. If not, his committee will take it up at some point in the coming days.
The second bill, House Bill 4274, likely will be placed on the Agriculture Committee's agenda for next week.