Once considered something of a “black market commodity” throughout the Lone Star State, raw milk has officially been approved for widespread delivery following a long and hard-fought battle from the Ranch Freedom Alliance: a national organization supporting the independence of family farmers.
In the past, Texas dairy farmers had been subject to strict licensing requirements regarding the direct-to-consumer sale and delivery of raw, unpasteurized dairy products. Due to standards set by the Department of State Health Services, sales had been previously restricted to on-farm only, meaning that raw milk could not be distributed outside of the farms on which it was produced. This stance was first challenged by the Ranch Freedom Alliance in 2009–a failed venture that eventually led to the issue being introduced in the Texas State Legislature across five consecutive sessions. Persistence and passion paid off when, in February of 2020, negotiations with DSHS staff finally resulted in the passage of a new set of provisions, including several positive changes. The new provisions will bolster small dairies throughout the Lone Star State, allowing them to compete more effectively with larger, “Big Dairy” providers. The new rules governing raw milk sales are as follows:
- Raw milk delivery shall be legalized statewide, in any locale deemed appropriate by consumers and farmers. However, raw milk sales at farmers’ markets remains prohibited, unless the farmers’ market booth is serving as a “delivery point” for pre-purchased products.
- Farmers are encouraged to have their own product samples examined at any approved lab of their choice, granting fresh power to small farmers in the event that local labs do not properly handle their samples. Such issues have resulted in local farmers having their licenses suspended in recent years, persisting as a topic of great concern throughout the push for new guidelines.
These new allowances come with restrictions as well, intended to ensure consumer safety. In order to qualify for Grade A delivery licensure, farmers must use ice derived from potable water sources, as well as provide temperature-controlled samples for all of their dairy products. Farmers must also keep records of how much product is delivered, in addition to the temperatures of delivery samples. Bottles must display batch numbers showing when the milk was packaged, and farmers must make available their two most recent test results in their milkhouse or storefront, notifying customers when updated results become available.
The new guidelines mark a major win for both Texan families and the dairy farmers who serve them. In San Antonio, families seeking raw milk previously had only two options available: drive some 23 miles southwest of downtown to Miller Farms in La Coste, or sign up with an unlicensed “black market” milk dealer who would purchase the product in bulk for coordinated pickups and drop-offs throughout the city. Such back-alley operations were unsafe for consumers and farmers alike. In 2013, a delivery of around 100 gallons of milk from one illicit dealer resulted in a staggering $5,000 fine for Miller Farms owner Eddie Miller, who was forced to dump 700 gallons of raw milk following a state investigation of the incident.
“When you tell folks about it, getting busted for selling milk, they think you’re lying,” said Miller. “It’s pretty stupid.”
The new rules help to safely regulate the sale of raw milk, providing easy access to the product while maintaining safety regulations for both consumers and dairy providers. Judith McGeary of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance remarked on the reasonable nature of the updated provisions, stating:
“The new guidelines take a more common-sense approach, allowing the farmer and consumers to agree on delivering this healthy, legal food.”
Fears which guided previous raw milk restrictions were not entirely unfounded. In 2020, a study of more than 2,000 milk samples from retail sites nationwide found that harmful bacteria such as Listeria, E.coli and Salmonella tend to grow more swiftly in raw milk than in pasteurized alternatives. However, this was only the case when products were not properly refrigerated. Raw milk stored at temperatures below 40 degrees was found to have no more active pathogens than pasteurized products. According to the CDC, between 1992 and 2012, only 144 hospitalizations were reported in connection to complications from raw milk consumption. So, while the risk exists, it is markedly small. Advocates argue that the benefits of raw dairy products far outweigh the risks, providing various enzymes and nutrients that aid in digestion and gut health.
At any rate, it seems only common sense that heightened accessibility paired with sturdy safety regulations will help to keep raw milk off the underground market, and safely in the hands of qualified personnel. It is the hope of small dairy farmers and their broadening customer base that the new guidelines will result in improved accountability, as well as better opportunities for dairy farmers statewide.