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Farmers plan legal action to block raw milk advertising limits

by: COURTESY OF CAST IRON FARM - Christine Anderson, owner of Cast Iron Farm in McMinnville, plans to sue the state because she cannot legally advertise her raw milk for sale.Oregon’s raw milk debate is about to heat up again.

A McMinnville farmer who sells raw (unpasteurized) milk is suing the Oregon Department of Agriculture for its ban on advertising the sale of raw milk.

Despite an E. coli outbreak last year from raw milk in Wilsonville that sickened 19 people, Oregon raw milk advocates continue to seek the product for its health benefits and to support local small farmers.

It’s a hotly contested issue statewide as well as nationally.

Oregon bans the sale of raw milk in stores but allows small farms to sell it on site. The ODA just does not allow the farms to advertise that fact. “The person does not advertise the milk for sale,” the ODA guidelines simply state.

Violators can incur a fine of $6,250 and civil penalties as high as $10,000, plus a year in jail.

But “how do you define what ‘advertising’ is?” says Christine Anderson, owner of Cast Iron Farm in McMinnville. “I've been trying to err on side of caution.”

On Tuesday, Anderson will file a federal First Amendment challenge against the ODA’s ban.

She and her attorneys, with the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, will speak to the public about the lawsuit and raw milk issue at 10:30 a.m. at the theater at Pioneer Courthouse Square.

Contacted by the Tribune this week, Anderson says she’s sold raw milk on her farm since 2008,

Having grown up on a cattle farm in Eastern Oregon, it's her philosophy to promote “traditional methods of farming that have withstood the test of time.”

“I like food that is pure,” she says. “But most importantly, milk comes out of a cow that is unpasteurized, and if you handle it correctly, I believe that’s the way it was meant to be consumed. The more we mess with our food, the more side effects, problems, the less real our food is.”

Anderson says her farm website used to post information about her raw milk sales.

Last year, a few months after the Wilsonville outbreak, she says she was contacted by ODA officials who asked her to remove the information about her raw milk sales.

So she did. Farmers also take the advertising ban to mean they can't use email, fliers or billboards that read “We sell raw milk.”

But now with no information online, Anderson says she fields at least a phone call a day from people who want to know the basics, like how much it is ($14 per gallon), and why it’s so expensive (because she it's a premium product and a one-woman operation, with her two children in tow, baby on the way and husband who runs his own company from the farm).

She gets questions about the safety of her milk and the testing she does voluntarily to reduce the risks of pathogens and communicable diseases.

She began testing last year, after the Wilsonville outbreak. “I would like to be able to communicate what it is we do to make our milk safe,” Anderson says. “I work really hard to produce really high-quality milk. The standards I have voluntarily held my milk to exceed by many times the standards commercial dairies are being held to.”

But that information is no longer available on her website. As a result, she says consumers are less informed, and could buy their raw milk from a source that isn't as safe. ODA limits the small farms selling raw milk to two dairy cows, but otherwise takes a hands-off approach.

“Not being able to talk about that is also dangerous,” she says. “The raw milk world is underground because of a lack of advertising. How is anybody able to differentiate?”

Last year Anderson says her farm was listed with other raw milk producers by the Raw Milk Institute, a network for their industry.

Besides the 50 customers she has — including Portlanders who make the weekly trip out for their milk — she says she gets phone calls all the time from raw milk producers nationwide looking for advice on testing and starting up.

“The raw milk scene nationwide is growing,” she says. “I would like to be able to talk about it.”