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Judge tosses lawsuit over state's raw-milk ban

A judge in Frederick on Monday threw out a dairy farmer’s lawsuit challenging a state ban on “cow-sharing” agreements aimed at skirting a prohibition on retail sales of raw milk.

Kevin Oyarzo of Buckeystown had sought to let people buy into his herd and receive unpasteurized milk in return. Some states, including neighboring Virginia, allow such arrangements to help meet a growing demand for raw milk.

Frederick County Circuit Court Judge Julie Stevenson Solt rejected Oyarzo’s argument that the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene acted improperly by issuing emergency regulations prohibiting cow-sharing after Oyarzo told the agency of his plans last summer.

Public health regulators say raw milk can contain harmful pathogens that are killed during pasteurization. Raw-milk proponents say the heat of pasteurization also kills healthful components in milk and degrades the flavor.

Oyarzo’s lawyer, Paul Walter, declined to comment on the ruling, saying he needed to first read it and then consult with his client.

At a hearing in July, Assistant Attorney General Lisa Barkin said cow-sharing deals are “sham agreements” designed to get around the 35-year-old sales ban.

Walter acknowledged during the hearing that Oyarzo’s plan was “possibly an avoidance” of the state law, but he said the new regulation amounts to an illegal ban on not just sales, but consumption, of raw milk.

Barkin said the state can’t stop people from drinking raw milk, but that cow-sharing is something the General Assembly didn’t consider when it approved the statutory sales ban in 1971.

Raw milk was implicated in 18 cases of the bacterial infection campylobacter, which causes diarrhea and fever, in Utah in March. Regulators also blamed raw milk for two cases of salmonella in Pennsylvania in February.

Twenty-eight states allow sales of raw milk for human consumption, according to the Washington-based Weston A. Price Foundation, a natural-foods advocacy group.