By CURT WOODWARD
ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER
OLYMPIA, Wash. — On the Kozak farm, it only takes a few minutes for milk to get from Iris the cow’s udder to the bottles that will be picked up by her co-owners.
For the farmers and the milk drinkers, the arrangement is perfectly simple – everyone knows where the milk comes from, and gets it with a minimum of human meddling.
“It’s not the anonymous milk on the shelf and the anonymous buyer,” said Linda Kozak of Vashon Island, whose family distributes the dairy products. “It’s really more of a closed system, and it’s more natural.”
That simple system, however, is turning into a big problem for the raw milk producers targeted by bills being considered at the 2006 Legislature.
A pair of lawmakers from southwestern Washington are sponsoring the measures, which explicitly include so-called “cow share” programs among the classes of dairies that must be licensed by the state.
The bills were spurred by an E. coli outbreak last month, in which raw milk from an unlicensed small dairy in Cowlitz County was linked to illnesses in 18 people in Washington and Oregon.
“This is about safety,” said Sen. Mark Doumit, D-Cathlamet, the sponsor of one raw milk bill. “We don’t want anybody else to get sick or potentially die.”
The bills take specific aim at cow share operations, in which dairy consumers pay for an ownership stake in an animal in exchange for a portion of its food products.
The state Agriculture Department, which regulates dairies, already considers such arrangements illegal if the distributors are not licensed. But some confusion over the issue emerged during the December E. coli outbreak.
The farm owners linked to the tainted milk initially resisted efforts to inspect their customer list, saying the consumers were co-owners and not buying the milk commercially.
They eventually relented in the face of court action, and were shut down by the state.
The Agriculture Department, which released its final report on the outbreak Wednesday, is still considering whether to issue civil fines in the case.
In the meantime, small dairy owners are worried about the outcome of the cow share bills offered by Doumit and Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver.
While many would welcome more oversight and testing to ensure cleanliness, small dairies face a steep bill if they want to convert to a fully certified operation, Kozak said.
“It’s designed to deter the small producer, and it’s a shame. It’s really a shame,” she said.
Moeller, who saw some constituents get sick during December’s E. coli outbreak, said forcing small farms to take out a second mortgage is not the goal.
“But there are certain standards and they’re in place for a specific reason – so people like these little children in my district don’t get sick,” he said.
The cow share bills are SB6377 and HB2598.
On the Net:
Washington Association of Shareholder Dairy Owners http://www.shareholderdairies.org