by Jack Hornickel
NPR recently highlighted a new tool for raw milk producers: third-party quality control standards and independent certification. The Raw Milk Institute (RAWMI), a non-profit that supports a strong and safe raw milk industry, has published safety criteria for raw milk producers. If farmers meet RAWMI’s Common Standards and draft an adequate Risk Analysis and Management Plan, they can be listed on the RAWMI website as exemplar producers of “reliable, clean raw milk.” Doctors, veterinarians, epidemiologists, farmers, and consumers all participated in developing the safety measures.
The Common Standards include water and milk testing that probes for the presence of coliforms, salmonella, listeria, and E. coli. They also require testing the dairy herd to ensure the animals are free of tuberculosis and brucellosis. The Risk Analysis and Management Plans are developed uniquely for each farm. Generally they must address contamination risks that occur during animal transportation, cleaning of milk containers, management of bedding and manure, feed storage, and contact with farm employees. The Plan mandates responsible reflection on the entire dairy process and seeks to identify all points where contamination can occur, thereby mitigating risk.
By mitigating the risk that a consumer may become ill, RAWMI’s standards should also minimize exposure to civil lawsuits. However, compliance with such voluntary standards will not immunize a raw milk producer from civil liability or from criminal liability where raw milk sales are illegal. Because raw milk laws are different in each state, the independent certification offered by RAWMI will have varying effects depending on the location of the farm.
In New York, for example, dairies can sell raw milk from the farm after receiving a license. The standards for obtaining a license are similar to the RAWMI Common Standards but require additional testing for staphylococcus and organisms that cause mastitis in dairy cows. New York also requires farmers to post a sign reading, “Raw milk does not provide the protection of pasteurization.” Thus, raw milk producers that are independently certified by RAWMI are well on their way to being licensed by the state. By taking a few extra steps, farmers would be shielded from criminal liability.
New Jersey is another story. In that state, all sale of raw milk for human consumption is illegal. The RAWMI certification will do nothing to protect a New Jersey producer from criminal prosecution. In fact, listing on the RAWMI website is likely to draw attention to the illegal enterprise, and the paper trail of bacterial testing and food safety plans is evidence that can be used in a prosecution. Here, independent certification would raise the chances of criminal liability, despite the farmer’s honest attempt to provide safer food.
Now for the final twist: RAWMI’s standards will have only a minimal effect on farmers’ civil liability. In every state, raw dairies face strict liability in civil lawsuits for harms caused by the food products they sell. If anybody becomes sick from consuming a raw milk product, the producer can be held liable for the consumer’s injuries, even if the producer followed the highest safety standards. Raw dairies, like all food producers, have an absolute duty to make a safe product. The only effects RAWMI’s certification could have in a civil lawsuit might be to insulate the farmer from a negligence claim, an alternate theory on which a consumer could sue, as well as punitive damages.
RAWMI’s certification is a practical step forward, falling short of a legal solution. The Common Standards and Risk Analysis and Management Plan are a laudable attempt to legitimize and create industry-wide standards for the raw milk industry. However, they will have varying effects on farm liabilities, and farmers still must continue to navigate the patchwork of state laws. For a comprehensive guide to state raw milk laws, visit the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund website.