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Foxborough

New rules on raw milk are rejected

Terri Lawton said she feared new rules could close her family’s farm.
Terri Lawton said she feared new rules could close her family’s farm.Boston Globe/File 2008

Bowing to public pressure, Foxborough’s Board of Health has decided not to impose local regulations on raw milk produced in town — relying instead on current state oversight.

The board also voted specifically to continue to allow the sale of the controversial product, which critics say is potentially dangerous to health but advocates say has medical benefits.

“Sometimes too much government isn’t a good thing,” board member Paul Mullins said after the 2-1 votes last week. “The state has got regulations, and I’m not so sure we needed to intervene. There was nothing seriously egregious that said we needed to further restrict them.”

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Foxborough is home to Lawton’s Family Farm, one of 28 dairies in the state that sell raw, unpasteurized milk. The state Department of Agricultural Resources regulates raw milk, but allows communities to impose higher standards or ban its sale. According to the state, 194 communities have bans and one — Framingham — has stricter local rules.

Concerned about two instances of high bacterial contamination in milk from Lawton’s Family Farm, the Foxborough health board had proposed strict rules that gave local officials more control over the dairy’s operation.

The proposed rules — which board member Eric Arvedon said were patterned after those in Framingham — threatened the continued operation of her family’s 281-year-old farm, according to Terri Lawton. A former state dairy inspector, Lawton has run the farm’s dairy operation for almost eight years, directly selling unpasteurized milk from 24 cows to about 200 customers, she said.

“We’re just really grateful that they didn’t put us out of business, which they could have done if the vote had gone the other way,” Lawton said. “We’re really relieved. We have a very small, very old family farm, and it’s really important to all of us that it continues going.”

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The 25-acre farm, which sits in the shadow of Gillette Stadium, was part of a land grant given to her ancestors in 1732 from King George, she said. The original property spread from Foxborough to Medfield and Dedham.

More than 200 people attended the Board of Health’s Monday hearing, which had been postponed to find a venue big enough to fit the anticipated crowd. The vast majority of those at the hearing opposed the proposed new rules. Lawton said that many of her customers were there, as well as raw milk advocates from Western Massachusetts who wanted to voice their opinions.

Mullins, who has been on the Board of Health since 1997, said the turnout was the largest he’d ever seen.

The Board of Health also was flooded with e-mails and calls from the raw milk lobby, and Mullins said some of the correspondence had a nasty tone.

“Some of them were more or less aligning us with the Krafts,” the family that owns Gillette Stadium, “or saying we want to run the farm out of business because we don’t like them, we don’t care about the farmer, or we’re trying to get the Krafts to buy the property,” Mullins said. “There were all these conjectures coming out, and no thought to our feelings.”

Mullins said the intense lobbying probably influenced his voting, though. “They had an effect: We’re supposed to be doing the will of the people,” he said. “We’re also supposed to be protecting the health of the people. In a situation like that, you have to weigh out the consequences.”

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He said an analogy between raw milk and motorcycles helped him decide against strict local regulation of the former.

“I enjoy riding a motorcycle,” he said. “Other people think it’s dangerous and won’t do it” — while he thinks the rules governing motorcycle use are enough to protect him.

“Other people enjoy drinking raw milk” and think the existing rules protect them, said Mullins. “You take it at face value and go from there.”

Foxborough health director Pauline Clifford said she was disappointed by the board’s action, and expected the issue would resurface. Her concern, she said, is that someone will get ill from consuming raw milk from Foxborough.

“It’s all about public health,” she said.

Arvedon, the dissenting voice on both votes by the board Monday, said he had proposed the local regulation because Lawton’s Family Farm had not been cooperative when it failed two state milk safety tests with high bacterial counts earlier this year.

“We were concerned,” he said. “We wanted to be sure that anyone who received the product knew” about the failed tests, Arvedon said. “I have confidence in the state, but I was concerned that we weren’t involved.”

The state requires regular testing of raw milk; the proposed local rules would have set a lower level of bacteria allowed in weekly tests than the state permits. The proposed rules also would have required the dairy to stay closed for a longer period than the state mandates after a failed test.

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Johanna Seltz can be reached at seltzjohanna@gmail.com.