That makes me a lowly layman, ignorant yet trying to get a small handle on the big issues…and to convey the bit of information I can glean on to you, because I suspect you are like me: you care but you don’t know the details about food production in our country. (Ugh, I even hate that phrase, “food production.” Even that sounds industrial and impersonal, corporate and cold.) And we all must because the way we are currently feeding ourselves is not sustainable.
I explained my naivete that way when I spoke to David Gumpert, author of “The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America’s Emerging Battle Over Food Rights.” He was kind enough to spend time on the phone with me even when I told him point blank I’m not writing a review of the book nor am I any kind of food journalist or expert. I am only a layman learning about these issues and hoping to make other ordinary, everyday people like me more aware of them by talking to him and reading his book then writing about what I learned, in laymen’s terms.
I wasn’t even prepared for my talk with him. I hadn’t read up on raw milk and I hadn’t started his book yet. I was just confused and curious. My biggest question was the one I asked first: “Why milk?” Because I wanted to know, why does raw milk lead to the SWAT team raids and the horrific treatment of well-meaning farmers? Why is raw milk illegal in most states when all kinds of other foods have made people sick, like spinach and cantaloupe?
David explained in part it’s because milk is an emotional issue. We feel differently about milk than we do other foods because it’s the first food we consume, and we forever associate it with our first months of life, the cuddling that comes with feeding and nurturing.
OK, that’s it in part, but surely there must be more to it than that, right? For raw milk to be so vilified and the issue to be so volatile, to the point that dairy farmers are treated worse than drug lords?
His reply? “Welcome to the new world of food safety.”
David told me a lot on the phone, and I learn more as I am reading his book. I’m not going to condense all of the detailed information he has compiled into one measly blog post, nor could I explain all of the complexities that are going on with food safety and food rights and traditional vs. industrial agriculture. So I am picking out a few salient points that I hope get you thinking, if not about raw milk, at least about government oversight and the consequences of our industrialized food system…and the resulting lack of bothchoice and control.
Up until 1947, raw milk was perfectly legal. Then that year, Michigan became the first state to require pasteurization, and other states all fell into line. In the early part of the century, circumstances were such that milk did need to be pasteurized in certain cases (crowded cities with unsanitary conditions). But all milk all over all of the time? That wasn’t necessary but today, raw milk is legal in only eight states! Eight out of 50! Why? Misinformation. Fear. Overzealous food safety. And a bit of Big Brother “government knows best” oversight.
On page xxvii of his book (and for the record, even just the introduction is compelling, quotable reading!), David says, “It’s this issue of rights versus protection that is arousing the most serious passion around raw milk and, increasingly, other foods.”
Whether or not you want to drink raw milk is irrelevant here, and I’m not going to espouse the benefits of raw milk, because that’s not my point. What matters is the right to buy and consume the food of your choosing, whether that’s pasteurized, homogenized milk from the grocery store or raw milk from the local farmer. How is that different from me wanting to buy corn from the local farm versus the trucked in stuff from the grocery store?
By vilifying raw milk and milk producers, we are in effect saying the industrial way is better. But wait, industrial agriculture has contributed to food borne illnesses because of the conditions of feedlots and heavy doses of antibiotics. There are very few illnesses that result from raw milk in comparison. In fact, one tragic story in the book tells of a family sickened by pasteurized milk, but the health officials didn’t bother to figure that out. Instead, they made life a living hell for the dairy farmer who had supplied raw milk to the family.
In another case, a dairy farmer almost died from the stress caused by the government and police attack and raid, and he had never had his milk associated with any illness. No, he had a neighbor who didn’t like the sound of the cows mooing…even though the poor man’s farm was zoned for, guess what? Farming! That was all the government needed to start setting up the sting operation that put this farmer in the hospital multiple times, ringing up tens of thousands of dollars in medical and legal bills. (I admit to crying while reading this story on pages 12 to 15.)
It’s interesting that the government can’t even see the benefit of raw milk as a local food, let alone recognize that it doesn’t pose the health threat they claim. Nor the more sustainable farming methods used by small dairy farmers as opposed to be huge industrial ones. You could even argue that raw milk is better for the environment for those very reasons!
I was tempted to point out the hypocrisy of keeping raw milk illegal for “health” reasons when the Standard American Diet (SAD!!) of processed junk food is making us fat, sick and diabetic…and no one thinks that’s illegal. But then I realized it still comes down to our choices. I don’t want junk food to be illegal. I don’t want raw milk to be illegal. I only want people to be educated and to have a choice about and control over what they are eating and whom they are buying their food from. And I don’t want government subsidies going to the producers making the products that make us fat and sick.
It’s milk right now, and it’s not getting any better. David suggested eggs might be next on the list, so look out backyard chicken farmers selling eggs to your neighbors. Could be the SWAT team will show up at your house next…bypassing the meth lab down the street to take down you, the real evil doer who dares to provide local food.