Bacteria limits for milk are to take effect Jan.1 in California. But milk producers and consumers feel that the limits are unworkable and would only choke supplies.
Mark McAfee is founder of Fresno-based Organic Pastures Dairy Company, the larger of two raw milk producers in California. He said 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, reports news agency AP.
The new standards takes effect on Jan. 1, 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, which are still alive in raw milk.
"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 are simply part of what makes their product unique and, in their view, healthier 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 were not told about the change until after the new law passed quietly earlier this year.
Others states already have adopted the 10-coliform standard, and supporters of the stricter standards say it will not 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 standards.
Twenty-eight states allow sales of raw milk for human consumption, according to the Washington-based Weston A. Price Foundation, a natural-foods advocacy group.
California officials say some children fell ill last year after consuming Organic Pastures products. Five children reportedly were sickened, and officials discovered a possible sixth case.
However, testing at Organic Pastures did not detect the strain of E. coli that sickened some of the children, McAfee said.
He said there was no connection between the sick kids and his products and that state officials admitted that and signed a settlement agreement this summer.
Dr. Kevin Reilly, deputy director of the California Department of Public Health, said health officials still believe there is a compelling argument for an epidemiological link because all the children had consumed raw milk products.
But fans of raw milk, who say it helps with everything from asthma to digestive troubles, do not want to see the product disappear from store shelves.
"It is just real food the way God made it, the way it was intended to be," said Organic Pastures customer Linda Edin of Fresno. "It hasn't been messed with in any way."