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Read This Book If You Want To Understand the Food Safety Debate

By Jill Richardson |

Think back to earlier this year when numerous emails were flying around about the evils of H.R. 875 and the government takeover of food. If this is the first you're hearing on the matter, consider yourself lucky. It was a lot of noise over what turned out to be nothing. Those of us who were watching Congress were baffled by the outrage expressed about the bill.

According to the rumors, the bill was secretly sponsored by Monsanto and it was going to ban backyard gardens, farmers markets, and organics. Yet, Consumers Union strongly supported the bill. I read through the bill text and didn't find anything that would possibly ban organics or farmers' markets. Most of the bill had nothing to do with farms - it covered "food facilities," a term that exempts farms and restaurants. Oh - and the Monsanto claim? Totally false. A look at Monsanto's lobbying records shows they had nothing to do with it.

According to the rumors from DC insiders, H.R. 875 was basically dead on arrival. Its sponsor, Rosa DeLauro, was not on the committee that would ultimately pass a food safety bill, the House Energy and Commerce Committee. One of the most powerful men on that committee, Henry Waxman, had also proposed a food safety bill. His bill would be the one that moved forward, not H.R. 875. Then word came down that there would be a NEW bill put forth by Dingell that combined characteristics of his previous bill and H.R. 875. That turned out to be H.R. 2749, which ultimately passed. So why the hysteria over a bill that ultimately went nowhere? And why are people so suspicious of giving the government more power to keep our food safe when clearly we have a major food safety problem in this country?

Once H.R. 2749 came on the scene, opposition started up again, although this time it was quite a bit more grounded in reality. Still, what gives? If people are dying from peanut butter and spinach, shouldn't the government have the tools to keep us safe from foodborne illness?

Throughout this time, I kept in touch with my friend Judith McGeary, who understood the opposition to the food safety bills very well (in fact, she had a hand in writing some of the action alerts... the sane, reality-based ones, that is). At the core of much of the opposition was raw milk. Through Judith, I navigated what would otherwise be a very confusing headache of food safety bill opposition.

This week, I've read through an advance copy of David Gumpert's upcoming book The Raw Milk Revolution. I can now say: I GET IT. I might not agree with it 100%, but I get it. If you want to understand the vocal opposition to food safety laws, you should read Gumpert's book too. That's not the only reason to read it though. Even if you have little interest in raw milk, I think this book is a key piece in the puzzle to understanding the backwards priorities in America's food safety system.

Something like ten million American people drink raw milk (estimates vary). It's not a common product. It's not even legal in many places, and in most states it's not sold in stores. Even when it is sold, it's expensive! You don't pay $6 for a gallon of milk by accident. Nor do you buy part ownership in a cow or drive to a farm in another state by accident, as some people do in order to obtain their raw milk. People who get raw milk really want it, and they know what they are getting.

I've had raw milk a few times myself, mostly on dairy farms. I've only purchased raw milk three times (the other times it has been given to me for free). Once was on a farm in Pennsylvania and once was from a farmer in Texas. The third time was from a retail store in California. The CA raw milk from the store was not good, in my opinion, so I did not buy it again. In all of the other cases, raw milk tasted richer and sweeter than the pasteurized milk I grew up with. I did not notice any of the health benefits that many raw milk aficionados boast of, but then again, I don't have many health problems in the first place. Lovers of raw milk say it has relieved their asthma, allergies, colitis, and ADHD, among other things. Some people who are lactose intolerant say they are able to drink raw milk with no problems.

My initial attitude on raw milk was: if people want it, let them have it, but regulate it so it is as safe as possible. I mean, what do they do for sushi? That's a raw product that we legally consume. In theory, if you require that farmers test the milk frequently and meet certain conditions that would reduce the risk of bacterial contamination (cleanliness, for example), that should be a workable compromise to allow people a legal path to get their raw milk.

During the H.R. 875 blow-up, Judith told me that raw milk farmers had been targeted by the FDA, even when no one had gotten sick. Gumpert's book elaborates on this. In some cases, no one was sick at all. In other cases, while no one was sick, the state found a bacteria or two in the milk (on testing equipment that may or may not have been faulty). In yet other cases, people got sick and the government blamed raw milk, but the sick people and their families felt that the illness was from something else (like a child eating snow contaminated with bird poop, or a family who drank pasteurized milk). Still other cases remain unresolved. You've got sick people who drank raw milk and no matching strain of E. coli in the cows or their milk. And then there's at least one case where they DID find a match between the sick consumers and the raw milk and the cows' manure.

In other words: raw milk gets blamed for food safety problems a lot, probably more than it deserves. Can raw milk be contaminated? Sure - but so can anything, as we've seen from recalls in everything from cookie dough to pet food. And what about the cases of regulators harassing dairy farmers in the absence of anyone getting sick?

It's not just the targeting of dairy farmers selling raw milk that is impressive but the lengths the government goes to to target them. It's often more fitting for a drug bust than a raw milk bust. Dairy farmers aren't known for being violent people, and cows can't be hidden and smuggled as easily as cocaine. Chances are if the authorities wish to talk to a farmer, the farmer will be quite willing to talk (and perhaps even comply with the government's requests, if they are reasonable) - no dramatic intimidation or sting needed. Yet for some reason, all too often, state and federal officials chose to treat farmers like drug dealers (actually sending one farmer to the hospital with PTSD!).

So - if this was your experience with the government's food safety regulations, would you be nervous about new laws giving the FDA increased authority? I would. From what I understand, Judith wants the new law (H.R. 2749 and its Senate counterpart) to be airtight to keep the FDA from using the bill to step up its war on raw milk. And it's really sad that we can't just pass a food safety bill and trust the FDA to do the right thing, but in this case, I think they've lost that trust a long time ago.

When it comes to raw milk, I wish the government would just leave the raw milk people the hell alone. Is it 100% safe? No. Nothing is. Is it risky for a parent to give raw milk to a child? Maybe, but parents do all sorts of rotten things to their kids with impunity, like feeding them fast food frequently or smoking cigarettes around them. And unlike raw milk, fast food and second hand smoke carry more than just risks of harm to one's health - they are proven to harm your health. I'd like to see the government work together with dairy farmers who sell raw milk to set some boundaries and allow raw milk to be legal within those boundaries.

As for food safety, there's a wider debate to be had here. The government can't shut down a meatpacking plant after it finds pathogens repeatedly, yet the slightest evidence of listeria is enough for them to go after a small dairy farmer who sells raw milk. Perhaps it's time to reconsider this leniency on the meatpacking plants?

Seeing how much scrutiny raw milk is under makes me all the more outraged at the lax food safety atmosphere that the REST of our food has had over the past decade or two. If less than 5% of the U.S. population drinks raw milk, then why focus our resources there? Can we not focus on the foods that are widely consumed? That's where the most risk lies, because our food system is so highly concentrated, and a relatively small number of companies make the majority of food eaten in the U.S.

If a small farm has a food safety problem, a small number of customers in a limited geographic area will be harmed. That is not true when a national company like Nestle has a food safety problem and all U.S. consumers must be alerted about the issue. And it gets worse when the tainted product is an ingredient in many products that are sold under numerous brand names, like the peanut butter outbreak last winter. There may be loss of life in all of these cases, but the economic effects are far more devastating when a food is mass marketed nationally. Furthermore, traceability is easier for products sold by small farmers to a small group of customers, so it should be simpler for them to alert their customers about the problem quickly than in nationwide food scares. Given all of that, I'd prefer the government focus its food safety resources on large companies, not small farmers.


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