Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund
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Defending the rights and broadening the freedoms of family farms and protecting
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Swallow Peanuts, But Choke on Raw Milk?

By Tim Rowland

Article from The Herald-Mail

It's rich to hear state health departments and the federal Food and Drug Administration shake a warning finger at the Maryland General Assembly over the dangers of raw milk.

It is equally quaint to hear the farm bureaus raise the same complaints, considering that many of their dairy-farmer members grew up drinking the stuff.

The message is that any milk that hasn't been cooked beyond recognition under the watchful eye of government regulators is unfit for human consumption - and as regulators guard the front door with shotguns to prevent a dairy breaking and entering, tons of bacterially poisoned peanut butter are slipping in through the back, which should be proof enough that it's the producer, not the product, that makes the difference.

Fans of raw milk in Maryland have to purchase it on the black market or drive to Pennsylvania, where it's legal, according to a story by Meredith Cohn in The (Baltimore) Sun. They believe it to be more nutritious, a claim that the government disputes. Common sense, however, would suggest that cooking anything diminishes its food value.

But this is about a lot more than nutrition; this is about knowing where your food comes from and knowing who produced it.

Every day we put blind trust in the products we pull from the supermarket shelves. Likely as not, they've been shipped hundreds or thousands of miles (burning carbon fuel in the process) and we have no idea how many - as was the case with the peanut butter - rats were in the ventilation ducts.

The government says trust us, we're on top of it. But peanuts, tomatoes, spinach and downed cattle fork-lifted into the grinders would indicate it is not.

And none of this takes into account the chemicals, hormones and artificial processing ingredients that are all nice and legal. Everything the government does, in fact, is designed to protect the big, faceless producer. This is no accident, since it is these corporations that write campaign checks to the people in Congress and the legislatures who write the laws.

But here's the thing to remember about raw milk, or any product that comes from a small, local farm: The producers are putting the same stuff on their tables as they are selling to you.

During congressional hearings, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon, brandished a jar of peanut butter before Peanut Corp. of America CEO Stewart Parnell and asked whether he would be "willing to take the lid off and eat any of these products now ..." Good question.

People who visit a local farm to pick up a gallon of raw milk have an advantage - they can inspect the operation and decide for themselves on the matters of the operation's care and cleanliness. Small producers are almost always happy to give you a tour. In fact, such is their enthusiasm that the greater problem is getting away in a reasonable amount of time.

It's also rather amazing the amount of energy the state will spend trying to put the clamps on people who have a couple of cows or a small herd of dairy goats. It's legal to drink milk from your own cow, so farmers began to sell shares of a cow to people who could then pick up "their" milk from "their" cow. But the state swooped in and put a stop to it.

If the government put this kind of effort into mass-produced peanuts, five people might still be alive.

Similar creative efforts have been necessary for the sale of wholesome, grass-fed beef - a product whose health benefits have been proved in university studies. The government doesn't want you buying this if it hasn't been processed under the eye of an inspector. It would prefer you bought grain-gorged, hormone-soaked beef, whose ration includes proteins from other ground up animals.

Again, beef farmers tried to sell the cow to the consumer before processing. But in Virginia some years ago, that didn't work, because the state reasoned thusly: If you are selling meat by the pound, you must be selling the meat and not the whole animal. So at least one farmer sold his steers for $1 - and then charged $2.95 a pound for shipping and handling.

Such marketing gymnastics should not be necessary. It should be the job of the state to encourage, not discourage, locally grown and carefully produced food. Raw milk sells for $6 a gallon. That's a real incentive for small farmers who otherwise cannot match the economies of scale of the big boys.

And the benefits of making small farms cost-effective are multitude. Less fuel is consumed getting the products to market. More rural land is preserved. Small farmers often raise heritage breeds that would not be susceptible to widespread outbreaks of disease, should one break out among standard varieties. Grass is generally the primary foodstuff, as opposed to the horribly inefficient use of grain. And finally, after tasting, say, a range-raised chicken, it's awfully hard to go back to the bland, soggy birds from the store.

Many laws, many regulations need to be changed before small producers can truly thrive. But legalizing the sale of raw milk would be a positive start. And the producers of raw milk, I am sure, would be more than happy to consume their own product in front of a legislative panel.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.


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