Georgia dairy farmers can sell raw, or unpasteurized, milk for human consumption starting in 2023, providing what some farmers say is a much-needed boost for the state's family farms.
The General Assembly recently approved the Georgia Raw Dairy Act, despite testimony about the health risks of drinking raw milk.
The bill will go into effect on July 1, 2023, making Georgia the 31st state to allow raw milk sales.
The market for raw milk has grown in recent years due to interest from consumers who say it tastes better, is more nutritious and has health benefits.
For White House Dairy Farm owner Marvin Yoder of Montezuma, Georgia, selling raw milk could give him a new market and potentially triple his income, he told legislators last year, and give him a new market. While some big dairies are expanding, family-owned farms like his are struggling to make ends meet, he said at the time.
"If nothing is done, I don't think you will have more than 40 dairies [in Georgia] in 10 years," Yoder said last fall. "The smaller farms are the backbone that keep a tight-knit community together."
But not all small farm owners are convinced the new legislation will help. Cedar Rock Farm owner Sam Jones of Montezuma, Georgia, said the cost of new equipment needed to get a license to sell raw milk to consumers may not be worth it.
"I got my start with grade A dairy, but I switched to selling raw milk when grade A milk stopped paying the bills," Jones said. "I have the facilities to sell grade A raw milk, but not every family farm can afford to build new barns and bottling facilities that meet Georgia's standards. Even if they do build it, it'll never pay itself off."
Under the Raw Dairy Act, Georgia dairy farmers selling raw milk would be required to get a license that states their raw milk products are grade A for human consumption and follow food safety regulations and the Commissioner of Agriculture would create regulations for maintaining the grade A status of the raw milk.
"This provides that the commissioner of agriculture will be in charge of this," said Republican Sen. Jeff Mullis of Chickamauga. "They will inspect the location where raw milk is produced. It will inspect where it's manufactured, kept, handled, stored or sold. It will be sampled and analyzed and tested."
The bill requires dairy farmers to include a warning label on raw milk packaging: "Warning: This is a raw milk product that is not pasteurized and may increase risk of foodborne illness."
The bill also includes unrelated provisions related to equipment for tracing synthetic opioids tacked on in the final days of the legislative session.
Under current laws, Georgia dairy farmers can sell raw milk for pet consumption, but not human consumption. Feed produced for pet consumption is subject to a much lower level of food safety regulation. However, legislative supporters of the Georgia Raw Dairy Act said people were purchasing raw milk labeled for pet consumption and drinking it themselves, which carries health risks for those consumers.
Legalizing the sale of raw milk will allow the industry to be regulated for the safety of consumers, said bill sponsor Republican Rep. Clay Pirkle from Ashburn.
"Today, you can buy raw milk," Pirkle said in March. "But it's labeled as 'pet milk,' and all that's required is a small fee, an animal feed license. The animal is never checked. The milk is never tested. There is no minimum safety requirements. There's no bacteria counts. There's no somatic cell counts. There is nothing in the purchase of raw milk that we have any idea of what's in it."
However, public health experts told legislators that raw milk should not be legalized for human consumption because drinking raw milk is dangerous and provides no proven health benefits.
Raw milk is unsafe for human consumption, and no claims of nutritional or health benefits have been proven, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Bacteria commonly found in raw milk include listeria, campylobacter, salmonella, and E. coli.
"Risks are particularly high among infants, children, pregnant women, and other immunocompromised individuals who are hospitalized at higher rates when they become sick after being exposed to pathogens like salmonella, listeria, and E. coli," said Nick Place, dean and director of the University of Georgia College of Agriculture and Science. "The risk of these outbreaks is demonstrated not only by the numerous scientific studies, but also by the existence of these outbreaks within the national population."
Outbreaks of foodborne illness resulting from the consumption of raw milk or raw milk products have occurred even in states that have industry regulations on raw milk, Place said.
Foodborne illnesses related to the consumption of raw milk also create liability concerns for farmers, putting producers at risk of paying for any damages that may occur, Place said.
Georgia's new regulations will not require testing every individual bottle of raw milk, Pirkle said. This means there is still the potential for consumers to get sick.
And while raw milk sales would allow dairy farmers to set their own prices and have more control over their market share, a significant increase in revenue for those farmers would be unlikely because of the competition in a small market, Tommie Shepherd, an agribusiness economist with the University of Georgia Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development said.
"You could potentially see half the price that the milk sells for now, if you have quite a few producers who decide to chase that market and they're competing on price," Shepherd said. "They're going to be required to put in some kind of bottling facility, cooler space, and there are probably going to be fees involved in testing and inspections. I see it being lucrative by the gallon, but not on a large scale."
Still, raw milk does have its appeal to some.
"Mr. President, let me read the ingredients of this milk," Sen. Mullis, a sponsor of the bill, said in presenting the bill, holding up a bottle of raw milk for the Senate to view. "Whole milk."