If you’re a farmer who has something customers want, it only makes sense to do your best to get it to them. Unless, of course, if it’s something that’s illegal to sell in your state — something like raw butter, for example.
That’s the dilemma that Billie Johnson, a dairy farmer in eastern Oregon, is facing. She says there are businesses that want to buy her farm’s unpasteurized, raw butter, but because Oregon doesn’t allow retail sales of raw butter, she’s had to turn to politics in search of a solution.
For the second year in a row, she has gone to the state Capitol in hopes of resolving this issue This year she’s pitching a plea for the passage of House Bill 2612, which would allow for the sale of butter made from milk that hasn’t been pasteurized. The bill would also direct the state’s Agriculture Department to establish grades and standards for such butter.
Supporters of the bill say it will give new options to dairy farmers and consumers without sacrificing food safety.
Violations of the regulations would be punishable by up to a year in prison, a criminal fine of up to $6,250 and a civil penalty of up to $10,000.
But that doesn’t scare Johnson, simply because she believes that raw butter is safe. So safe, in fact, that she calls it “brain food.”
“I want anyone who wants it to be able to get it,” she said. “I want to be able to sell it anywhere in the state where there’s a market for it.”
“We have a lot of demand for raw butter,” she told legislators during a recent hearing before the Oregon House Agricultural and Natural Resources Committee.
On the national level, the Food and Drug Agency has banned raw butter and other unpasteurized, raw dairy products — except aged cheese — from being transported or sold across state lines.
In comments about the Oregon bill, Lapsley McAfee of Raw Farm (originally Organic Pastures Dairy Company) in California said that in his state, raw butter is sold in 500 stores.
“It is a top seller,” he said. Describing it as a low risk food, he said that it’s considerably safer than raw milk. Not only that, he said there have been no illnesses associated with it in the past 10 years in CDC’s database.
“All people should be able to enjoy the healthful benefits of raw butter,” he said.
Mark McAfee, owner of Raw Farm, said that his dairy can’t make enough unpasteurized butter to meet demand “at this point.” In the past 20 years, it has sold more than 2 million pounds of raw butter without any known incidents. Yet even though he can legally sell his raw butter in California, he cannot ship it out of state.
While the retail sale of raw butter is prohibited in Oregon, it is legal in 11 states. And selling it directly to customers is legal in three states. However, the Food & Drug Agency prohibits it from being sold across state lines.
“Businesses are asking us for this product,” Johnson said during a recent hearing before the House Agricultural and Natural Resources Committee.
The food safety debate
While raw-butter consumers and advocates give it an enthusiastic thumbs up, Tami Kerr, executive director of The Oregon Dairy Farmers Association, urged lawmakers to carefully consider the oversight and regulation of products such as raw butter.
“If people get sick from it, it gives the industry a black eye,” she said, referring to dairy in general. “And it’s not so much a matter of if but when.”
“We understand the desire of some small producers and their markets to have access to raw products, including butter,” she said. “We also understand the value of pasteurization and combating micro-organisms in retail products.”
Those microorganisms include E. coli, Listeria and Salmonella, foodborne organisms that can get people sick, very sick, or even kill them.
But to Johnson, providing raw milk and raw milk products for people is all about the survival of the family farm. As part of that, food safety is paramount.
“It’s a way of developing a way to get what we produce on the farm directly to consumers,” she said.
Saving the farm
Johnson’s farm, Windy Acres Dairy Farm (https://www.windyacresdairy.com) in Eastern Oregon, has 70 cows, although not all of them are milkers. The farm is a herd share, which means that members own part of it. Besides raw butter, it produces raw milk, kefir, yogurt, cream and aged cheese — “anything you can think of that can be made with raw milk,” Johnson says.
Under a herdshare arrangement, members don’t buy any of the dairy’s products because they’re part-owners of it. This is a way that dairies can offer raw milk and other raw milk products without being under the state’s Agriculture Department’s regulations. Some people call it a loophole that lets them get away with producing raw-milk products that are prohibited under state law. It also frees them from inspections.
But to Johnson and other raw-milk dairy producers, herd shares are a way to stay in business. And that’s where raw butter comes into the picture. Considering the strong demand for it, to be able to sell it to restaurants, coffee shops, grocery stores and other outlets would help flush more money into the dairy’s bottomline.
And people are willing to pay a pretty penny for it: $16 a loaf. (A loaf is equivalent to a pound.)
“It’s all in the eyes of the beholder,” Johnson said about the price of raw butter. “It you value your health, you’ll value your food.”
She also said that it is “real food” and has better flavor than the conventional butter you buy in the store.
Proponents say that the passage of HB 2612 would give dairy farmers a better shot at making a living and could help stem the decline in the number of Oregon dairy farms. In 1992 Oregon had 1,900 farms with dairy cows, according to USDA data; the latest figures from the Oregon Dairy Farmers Association shows there are 194 dairy farms left in the state.
Johnson said being able to buy raw butter in retail outlets would help keep customers from traveling to northern California to buy it. And that, in turn, would help keep more of the state’s food dollars in the state.
If the bill were to be adopted, it would go into effect on the 91st day after the session has adjourned in June.
(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)