The Senate approved the bill on a bipartisan 25-8 vote over concerns that drinking unpasteurized milk could make people sick and put the state's dairy industry at risk. Supporters say it tastes better than pasteurized milk, has health benefits and that the state should not get in the way of private sales from willing raw milk sellers and buyers.
The vote comes amid a growing push nationally to legalize raw milk sales.
Sen. Judy Robson, D-Beloit, said she doesn't think it makes sense to risk an outbreak of disease by legalizing raw milk sales.
"We don't appreciate public health until we don't have it," said Robson, a retired nurse. "We don't appreciate public health until there's outbreaks of diseases."
But supporters framed it as a freedom of choice issue. If consumers want to buy the milk, they argued, they should be allowed to drink it.
Just like people can buy raw beef and sushi, they should be able to purchase raw milk, said Sen. Pat Kreitlow, D-Chippewa Falls. He predicted few dairy farmers would actually sell it.
The bill still must clear the Assembly and be signed by Gov. Jim Doyle before becoming law. The proposal must pass before April 22, the last day of the session, if it's to become law this year.
The Assembly will take up the bill next week, said Rebekah Sweeney, spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan.
The bill would allow farmers who register with the state to sell raw milk on their farms through the end of 2011. They would be prohibited from advertising beyond signs on the premises.
They also would have to test the milk at least monthly for pathogens and submit the results to state agriculture officials. If pathogens show up the state could suspend a producer's registration.
Groups representing the largest interests in the state's agriculture industry, the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, the Wisconsin Cheesemakers Association and the Wisconsin Dairy Products Association, oppose the bill, as does the Wisconsin Medical Society.
The Wisconsin Coalition for Consumer Choice, which works to limit government intrusion into consumer rights, the Wisconsin Farmers Union, which advocates for family farms, and the Wisconsin Health Freedom Coalition, which supports access to natural healing methods, support it.
The federal government doesn't allow raw milk sales but states can legalize sales as long as they don't cross state lines.
Nine states allow the retail sale of raw milk and 19 allow it to be sold from the farm to the consumer.
Wisconsin law currently bans raw milk sales except for occasional sales directly to individuals. Farmers are forbidden from advertising raw milk sales, and any sales cant be a regular part of their business.
Since last summer, eight investigations into raw milk sales have been launched by the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
The Food and Drug Administration opposes the sale of raw milk, saying it may contain a wide variety of harmful bacteria -- including salmonella, E. coli and listeria -- that can sicken and even kill. In March the FDA confirmed 12 cases of illness in Michigan after consumers drank raw milk from Forest Grove Dairy in Middlebury, Ind.
The FDA said there were 1,614 reported illnesses, 187 hospitalizations and two deaths from consumption of raw milk between 1998 and 2008.