MILWAUKEE (AP) - Hundreds of raw milk advocates are expected to attend a Wisconsin dairy farmer's trial next week in Baraboo, where supporters have rented a nearby theater to monitor the proceedings and hold a rally.
Loganville dairy farmer Vernon Hershberger and his supporters say he has been targeted for selling raw milk. But state officials say the only issue in the case is licensing, and even farmers selling pasteurized milk need the right permits.
Hershberger was charged in December 2011 with operating a dairy farm, a dairy plant and a retail food establishment without appropriate licenses and violating a hold order, which essentially barred any more food sales from his farm. He faces thousands of dollars in fines and up to a year in jail if convicted.
Jury selection is scheduled to start Monday for what is expected to be a four to five day trial.
The case has become a rallying point for raw milk advocates, who hope an acquittal would help other farmers who also have run into trouble for selling unpasteurized milk.
"Everybody realizes this case is pretty significant," Gayle Loiselle, a raw-milk advocate from Dousman, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "It starts with Vernon having the strength to stand up to state government. A lot of other farmers have just caved and said they would stop selling raw milk. He is fighting back and is getting support at a national level."
But Cheryl Daniels, a lawyer for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, told The Associated Press that she doesn't expect raw milk to be an issue at the trial because the licensing violations also apply to farmers selling pasteurized milk.
It isn't unusual for farmers to run into problems because they failed to get a license or let one lapse, but most quickly address the problem once it's pointed out, Daniels said. Hershberger's case is unusual because he voluntarily gave up his licenses and continued to sell food, she said.
"This is about the licensing and whether he has a right simply by contract to opt out of the system," Daniels said.
Raw milk advocates say pasteurization, the process of heating milk to destroy bacteria and extend shelf life, destroys important nutrients and enzymes. Public health officials disagree, saying raw milk carries an increased risk for bacterial contamination that can lead to illness and even death.
Nearly 2,400 people became ill from drinking raw milk between 1998 and 2011, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those, 284 people were hospitalized and two died.
The sale of raw milk to the public is illegal in most states and under federal law, which applies to products shipped between states.
Hershberger previously told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he chose to forego a state license because there wasn't one that would allow him to sell raw milk. He said he provides raw milk to members of a private food club who lease the cows and help work on the farm.
"The members get the food that rightfully belongs to them, and it's been that way for the last 10 years," he said in an interview last year. "I feel very strongly that individual families should have the right to choose what they want to eat."
Farmers have faced similar charges in other states. A Minnesota egg farmer was acquitted last year on charges of violating that state's restrictions on raw milk sales. He still faces charges in another county.
The Baraboo courtroom where Hershberger's trial will be held has room for about 70 people. Court officials said they plan to open another room for people to watch the trial on a video screen.
Hershberger's supporters say they expect people to come from as far away as California and Maine. They have rented the Al Ringling Theater across from the courthouse and plan to have a series of speakers talk about raw milk and the food-rights movement. There also will be daily briefings by legal experts.
"This isn't a bullhorn, sign-carrying kind of rally," Loiselle said. "It's more about education and watching the trial."
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