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Sale of raw milk could soon be legal in Louisiana, despite bird flu outbreak in cattle

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A bill legalizing the sale of raw milk in Louisiana is set to become law, despite warnings from state and federal agencies that consuming it is risky amid an outbreak of H5N1, or bird flu, in cattle.

The bill, HB467, passed unanimously in the House to a chorus of mooing lawmakers last month. The bill was later watered down in the Senate after the Louisiana Department of Health estimated it would take roughly $900,000 a year and seven employees to regulate raw milk for human consumption.

Eventually, legislators agreed raw milk could be sold, but only with labels that say "not for human consumption" and warn of the potential for "harmful bacteria." Lawmakers acknowledged that the label likely would not prevent people from drinking it, which is legal. 

"I don't care what you do with it after you get it," said Sen. Stewart Cathey, R-Monroe, during a Senate Agriculture meeting. 

Proponents of raw milk say that pasteurization, which involves heating the milk slowly to remove bacteria like salmonella, E. coli, listeria and campylobacter, zaps nutrients and "good" bacteria from milk. They say raw milk is more nutritious and keeps them healthy. 

Health officials and scientists, however, contend those claims are not backed by evidence. 

Bill sponsor Kimberly Coates, R-Tangipahoa, said Louisiana's struggling dairy farmers are missing out on income from raw milk sales.

"We have people that are driving out of state to Texas and Mississippi to go buy this unpasteurized milk," said Coates in an April House committee meeting.

But public health experts have cautioned against the consumption of raw milk. Legislators have tried several times to make sales of unpasteurized milk legal.

"We're weighing the politics versus the science and the risk," said Mike Strain, commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry and veterinarian, in the meeting.

Strain, a former Republican legislator, warned that raw milk can be risky during normal times, citing statistics that the milk causes 840 times more illnesses and 40 times more hospitalizations than pasteurized products.

But in light of a 10-state outbreak of H5N1 among more than 80 herds, consuming raw milk comes with additional risk, said Strain. Milk from an infected cow has "tremendous" levels of the virus.

The outbreak in cattle, which was first confirmed in March, is the first known to occur with this virus. So far, the infection from cows has jumped to three people in the U.S. who have had mild symptoms of conjunctivitis and cough, and there are not signs of human-to-human transmission. Several cats, which are especially susceptible to H5N1, died after drinking raw milk.

The risk to the public remains low, and federal authorities have temporarily halted the movement of herds between states, which they hope will stop the spread. But scientists are unsettled, worried that the virus may become more transmissible in humans if left unchecked or spread through other avenues such as raw milk.

"The timing couldn't be worse," said Robert Garry, a virologist at Tulane University who studies how viruses evolve in animals and jump to people.

Around two dozen states allow for the sale of raw milk, though some sales are under certain conditions, such as farm-only sales or through herdshares, in which people purchase a cow and are entitled to a portion of the milk produced.

The Louisiana bill requires monthly testing for salmonella, and raw milk sales may be suspended if any kind of outbreak is detected. 

Supporters and the author said they were taking special precautions with the raw milk to lower the risk of disease transmission.

"Do I believe that there are risks with raw milk? Absolutely," said Coates, the bill sponsor, in the committee meeting. "But there is risk with many foods."

The bill is awaiting Gov. Jeff Landry's signature. 

Email Emily Woodruff at ewoodruff@theadvocate.com.

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